What do you think when you hear “New Year”? Champagne, parties, staying up until midnight – chances are, estate plan review isn’t anywhere on that list. Why would anyone want to read legal documents as part of a New Year’s celebration?
OK, so perhaps you don’t have to review your beneficiary designations at the dinner table (although, on a second thought, it might just get some people to behave!) However, an annual review of your estate documents is a useful habit. Life brings about change. The documents that determine who gets your property when you pass (and who gets to make medical decisions on your behalf) should reflect who you are today – not who you were 10 years ago when you first put the package together.
And so, in the spirit of a fresh start for your New Year, here is your checklist for the estate planning documents. Don’t be intimidated: this really can be a quick scan once you know what you are looking for.
Look back for major recent changes.
Have you gotten married or divorced? Had a child or a grand-child? Moved to another state? Had a significant change in your financial circumstances? Any of these major life changes can trigger a need a revise your estate documents, so take note.
Review your beneficiaries.
Who gets what when you pass on?
This decision isn’t just about the family silver and the old piano – it’s about your legacy and the impact you want your money to have in the world after you are gone. Review your beneficiary designations carefully. Are you still on speaking terms with the friend who will be getting a $3,000 check? Is the neighbor who is meant to get your prize-winning rose collection still living next to you? Is your granddaughter still married to the person you have named in the will? Make sure that the people’s relationship with you (as well as their ability to receive and enjoy your gift) hasn’t changed. Keep in mind that your generous gift may affect some recipients’ eligibility for government benefits, and as such may require special arrangements.
Review your Executor and Trustee designations.
The decision to appoint someone your estate Executor or Trustee is an important one. It goes without saying that you must choose someone you trust, but the designation is more than a nod and an acknowledgement of a good relationship.
Being an Executor or a Trustee is a big responsibility. It takes times, diligence, a good head for money. It requires a steady hand for handling unexpected and emotional decisions after your death. You should always discuss your decision to appoint someone to be your Executor or Trustee with that person beforehand to make sure they are comfortable with taking it on. And, if your will has some unusual twists to it (such as disinheriting a child or dealing with an estate distribution that is uneven), you may want to bring that up as well so that your chosen Executor is not blindsided.
Review your financial and healthcare Power of Attorney.
The Power of Attorney documents define who will make financial and healthcare decisions on your behalf. Make sure that you still trust the named individual to sign your name in legally binding documents and make choices that will affect your financial situation and medical care. If your preferences around your end-of-life care or money management have changed, make sure the documents reflect that and that the appointed person is aware of those changes.
Look over your insurance policies.
While you are reviewing your will and trust beneficiaries, it’s a good idea to also check who you have designated to receive the proceeds of your life insurance policy. Sometimes, people remember to remove their ex-spouse from the will but forget to do the same for the life insurance.
Review specific instructions.
Finally, reflect on what makes your situation and final wishes unique. Some people want to leave their pets to a trusted person. It may make sense to set up an account to help pay for the pet’s supplies and medical care. Others want to make sure that an heirloom (a piece of jewelry or a painting) goes to a close friend or relative. If it isn’t in writing (and reviewed by an attorney to make sure it’s enforceable), it may not happen the way you hope.
Don’t wait, review your estate plan now.
Sometimes, accidents and health developments come with no warning. If something were to happen to you tomorrow, your estate documents as they stand right now would define your legacy. If that idea makes you uncomfortable, don’t wait – make the time to review and revise your estate documents now. It’s just another way to take care of your loved ones.