Thinking about our own mortality can often be an uncomfortable pastime, but we may find ourselves doing it more and more as we age. Naturally, we don’t have a lot of control over the circumstances and time of our deaths, but proper estate planning can give us a bit of say in what happens afterward.
If estate planning was fun and easy, we’d never hear people lamenting the fact that their recently deceased family member didn’t leave one. Putting together a will can be complicated, and it behooves the benefactor to spend some time getting it right. To that end, we spoke with some expert legal professionals and asked them to share some tips everyone should consider while preparing and maintaining their wills.
Getting Starting: When to Prepare Your Will
There isn’t really a “too early” as far as will preparation is concerned, because you will never know when the document may be needed. That said, it probably wouldn’t make sense for a six-year-old to get in writing how he plans on bequeathing his rock collection— so when is a good time to start thinking about it?
Evan Guthrie, lawyer and owner of Evan Guthrie Law Firm, says simply; do it before you need it.
There is never a right time to make a will because it will never be a convenient experience and there are so many other things one could do. But the right time is always before it is needed or before it is too late (death or incapacity) and no one ever knows when it will be too late. There are key life events such as marriage (protecting a spouse in case of your death) or a birth of a child (choosing who will be the guardian of your children instead of the court choosing) that should always be motivators to make a will. There is no certain place in ones life or a net worth threshold that signals a time to get a will, but there are always negative ramifications for those left behind when someone dies without a will.
Bernie Greenberg, a lawyer in his 35th year of legal practice, agrees, and adds that a few rules of thumb will help signal that the time is “now”.
This is one of the most common estate planning questions. The right time to begin your estate planning is before anything happens to you that would prevent you from proceeding. Here are some general questions:
- Are you over 18 or the age your State requires for making out a will or power of attorney?
- Do you care who makes decisions for you if you can’t?
- Do you care where any of your property goes or your insurance, IRA or 401(k)?
- Do you have children?
- Are you in a non-traditional relationship?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, then the time to begin to plan will is now.
Covering The Bases: What To Include
It may be easy to say- “it won’t matter to me at that point”, about many will desicions, but a poorly drafted will can have far reaching negative ramification on the lives of your loved ones. Not having all the answers just yet is no reason not to get something down on paper, but what is most important to spell out?
Christina McPherson runs her own estate planning and family law practice, and in her 14 years as a lawyer she has found that the advice of a professional will help you avoid pitfalls.
First, you don’t have to have all the answers. If you’re not sure who to name as your child’s guardian or how you want to distribute your estate, don’t let that be a barrier to estate planning. A good estate planner will help you to make the best decisions for you and your family. Second, keep in mind that if your estate plan is not done properly, it will be your family and loved ones who will suffer by having to sort it out once you’re gone. It may be tempting to use a less expensive online service, but it’s just not worth jeopardizing all you’ve worked for your entire life to save a few dollars. Work with a competent attorney.
Deirdre Wheatley-Liss, certified Elder Law Attorney and author of Plan Your Own Estate and the New Jersey Estate Planning & Elder Law Blog, says start by taking an inventory.
Start with the questions of “what is my stuff” and “who are my family.” If a Will disposes of your assets, you first need to have a list of what those are. Keep in mind that some asset have a beneficiary designation (like life insurance, an IRA or 401k) and these will go to the named beneficiary outside of the Will. When you consider who your family is, think of everyone you might like to benefit. This will allow to you to assign either specific assets or percentages of your estate among your loved ones.
Structure: Thinking About the “How”
In most cases, we pass our wealth on to our closest family members, friends, and sometimes charities, but sometimes we don’t give any real thought as to how they receive our estate. There are ways to help manage how the inheritance is spent that may be worth considering.
Wheatley-Liss says that a trust may be in order to help your loved ones properly manage themselves.
Think about not just what a person is inheriting, but how they are inheriting it. Do you want to leave assets to an 18 year old? Are you concerned with how your spouse handles money? A trust created in a Will can give your beneficiaries time to develop the financial skills to manage an inheritance.
Greenberg says that a professional will help inform you of considerations that you may not have been aware of otherwise.
Avoid DIY approaches or forms. In the long run, since they either don’t work or create unintended consequences they are much more expensive than doing it right the first time. Know that there is no “one size fits all” will. They don’t exist for a simple reason: there is no one out there like you, with your situation, your relationships, your children and your property. Work with a qualified estate planning specialist. If you wouldn’t let your skin doctor do your knee surgery, then apply the same principle to your estate planning. Remember to coordinate titles to property and beneficiary designations with your will and estate plan. Failure to do so could defeat the entire plan.
Maintenance: Time For An Update?
Change is inevitable, but every time something big changes updating our wills is usually the last thing on our mind. Failing to maintain these important documents might have very serious unintended consequences.
Guthrie says after a big life change, an update is a must- but setting a checkup schedule for yourself is a good way to stay on top of it otherwise.
There is no uniform time for everyone, but if there have been a major life event such as birth or marriage or a change in a family dynamic it may signal a time to update. If nothing major has changed in your life that would affect anything in your will, it is still a good idea to review every 5-10 years to be safe.
McPherson agrees, but goes on to say that even taking a quick peek at your will annually helps you catch more subtle changes that are equally as important.
If you’ve had a falling out with someone who plays a role in your estate plan, you want to make sure that’s updated. I advise my clients to do a quick review of their estate plan about once a year to make sure those chosen to act on their behalf (if they cannot act for themselves) are still the most appropriate people, and if the distribution of their estate is still how they want it to be.
Feeling Good About Your Will
For many people, their will is categorized in the part of their mind labeled: “things I should probably take care of soon”. As we all know though, procrastinating with your will is like playing chicken with a train— it’s not an “if” scenario, it’s a “when”. If you haven’t already, move your will out of that category and into the: “one less thing I have to worry about” section, and you’ll feel a lot better about the future.