Many of us love to make New Year’s resolutions – with a fresh, clean calendar laid out before us, the possibilities seem endless! But that vast expanse of “what might be” can also be overwhelming. So, if estate planning is on your resolution list, here are some suggestions for getting started, no matter what you do or don’t have in place now.
1. No Estate Plan in Place
If you do not have a comprehensive estate plan in place, take comfort from the fact that you are not alone. A recent study showed that only 40% of American adults have a will. If you are among the majority of people who do not have a complete estate plan, start by asking your financial advisor, accountant, or friends and family members for a referral to a trusted attorney in your state who is experienced in estate planning.
Look at the attorney’s website and LinkedIn profile, noting what clients say about her or him. Reach out to the attorney to find out how her or his process works and how you will be charged for the estate planning engagement. In preparation for your first meeting, collect information about all of your assets – the types of assets, how each asset is owned and how much each asset is worth. This should include getting statements for each account, and confirming any beneficiary designations in writing.
The study referenced above found that many people do not start their estate planning because they think it will take too long. Most clients with whom we work go from hiring us to executing their core estate plan in just about one month, so if you are willing to focus and you choose an attorney who is committed to helping you move forward, you should be able to complete this resolution in the first quarter of the year!
2. Fairly Recent (1-2 years) Estate Plan in Place
If you have a fairly recent estate plan in place and you have a trust of any kind, one of the most important things you can do is confirm whether your assets are appropriately owned. If they are not, your plan may not work in the way that you and your estate planning attorney intended – potentially leading to an involved court process and a lot of excess administrative costs and estate taxes.
Start by confirming how each of your assets is actually owned – get a copy of the deed for any real estate, a statement for each account, written confirmation of the owner and beneficiary designation for any life insurance policy and the beneficiary designation for any retirement account. If you are business owner, pull out the corporate documents, including any Shareholder or Operating Agreement.
Once you know how assets are currently owned, compare that to the ownership recommendations your estate planning attorney gave you after you created your trust or trusts. This may be a good time to sit down with your financial advisor and to call your estate planning attorney. Together with your professional team, create a plan for how to bring your current position in line with their recommendations, and implement it over the next few months.
3. Older (3+ years) Estate Plan in Place
Start by reviewing #2, above, to make sure that, if you have a trust, your assets are all owned as advised. In fact, this should become a regular part of your periodic reviews with your financial advisors, and you should discuss and confirm asset ownership each year.
Next, review your estate planning documents to make sure that the people you have named in important roles (your “fiduciaries”), such as Personal Representative, Guardian, Trustee, and Agents under your Durable Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, are still the appropriate people to fill those roles. It is often a fairly straightforward matter to adjust these in your estate planning documents, so be sure to contact your estate planning attorney if you think a change is appropriate. Then look to see who receives your assets upon your death, and how and when they receive them, and determine whether these arrangements still make sense. If your estate planning attorney prepared a summary or a flow chart of your estate plan, these documents can be very useful during your review.
If your estate planning attorney has a blog (like Life Goes On!), make sure you are subscribed or, if she or he posts on LinkedIn, be sure you are connected there and are following the posts. Your estate planning attorney will likely be posting about any changes in the law.
If this review leaves you concerned about your estate plan, reach out to your estate planning attorney to set up a time to discuss whether changes should be made to your plan. If you feel confident that your plan is still appropriate for you, your 2020 goal can be to create a file listing the current contact information for all of your family members, all of your current assets and how they are owned, and any other important information that you would want your family to have in case of your death or incapacity.
No matter where you are starting out this January, you can take some easy steps during 2020 to achieve your resolution and know that your family will be well taken care of if anything happens to you.
If you have questions about estate planning, probate, trusts, and tax matters, please contact one of Conn Kavanaugh’s experienced estate planning lawyers.
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