As a responsible parent, business owner, homeowner, or caregiver, you wrote a will. You have a Power of Attorney. You even have a complete Advance Medical Directive. So, you’re done, right? Sure, those documents were completed fifteen years ago, but nothing’s really changed since then, has it?
At Brian M. Douglas & Associates, we run into this line of reasoning fairly often. We totally understand finally completing your estate plan felt like a huge weight off your shoulders at the time. It was one of those things that had been hanging over you, you finally took the time to get it done, and then you were able to cross it off your list. But, that’s not quite the way to think about estate planning. Why? Because your comprehensive estate plan only works if it creates the result you intend when it is needed. An estate plan written fifteen years ago may not reflect your life and priorities in their present state, and it may not function in the same way in the current legislative environment.
Is it Really True that “Nothing’s Changed”?
The biggest excuse we hear for clients putting off reviewing and updating their estate plan is that “nothing’s changed” since the last time they had an attorney look at their documents. But, is that really true? Is everything in your family life the same? What about your work life? Your wealth and debts have remained the same? The tax laws? State laws around probate? Trusts? You get the idea. There are dozens of factors that can impact how your estate plan functions at any given point in time. And since you never know when you will need your estate plan to go into effect (either due to incapacity or death), it really needs to be in working order at all times. Take a look at this list. If any of the following have occurred since the last time you evaluated your estate plan, it may be time for a second look:
- Were there any marriages in your immediate family? Any divorces?
- Did anyone listed in your estate plan pass away or go through a major life change that could impact your choice to have them appointed executor, trustee, beneficiary, or guardian?
- Were there any births, new connections, or restored relationships that you want to include in your estate plan?
- Have there been any major changes to your wealth or debt? Any new lines of credit? Home purchases or sales? New businesses? Inheritances?
- Do you own anything that needs to be put into your trust? Removed from your trust?
- Have there been any changes to the tax code? (HINT: Everyone’s answer to this question is “Yes,” since the 2017 tax reforms) Have the state laws changed with regard to probate, trust administration, power of attorney, or healthcare directives?
How Do You Know if Your Estate Plan is Still Working?
The fact of the matter is, some kind of change is likely to occur in your life that impacts your estate plan on a yearly basis. So does that mean you need to completely rewrite your estate plan every single year? Of course not! Some changes may be small enough that they won’t dramatically impact how your estate plan functions. However, when those small changes start to accumulate, the results can begin to shift. That’s why we recommend that you revisit your estate plan about every three years, or when changes are major enough to trigger the need for an update.
The only real way to know if your estate plan is still in working order is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney. An attorney will be up-to-date on any changes in the law and will be able to ask the right questions about your current life, priorities, and wishes. In a comprehensive review, an attorney can walk you through exactly what would happen if you become incapacitated or die with your current estate plan in place.
While walking through this kind of “what if” scenario may seem a bit macabre, it is actually incredibly important. Failing to fully understand the impacts of your estate plan could have devastating impacts, both on your loved ones’ emotional states and on their finances. Why? New tax laws can change how assets should be transferred. Changes in family life can cause hurt feelings, alienation, and exclusion. Changes in estate law could even render your carefully-written estate plan ineffective.
Maintenance is Much Easier than Starting from Scratch
If the need to update your estate plan is coming as a bit of a shock to you, there is some good news. Maintaining an estate plan over time is so much easier than starting from scratch. In fact, if you keep your estate plan maintained regularly over time (we recommend about every three years, or after major life changes), these maintenance “check ups” can become fairly routine. No need to gather all of your asset documents all over again. No need to take a whole day off work to meet with an attorney. And no need to pay the full price of an estate plan drafted from the very beginning. Just like visiting the dentist or your primary care physician each year, a quick check-in with your estate planning attorney can keep things from getting out of control. For many of our clients, this is a slight but pivotal mind-shift: instead of thinking of your estate plan as a one-and-done thing you have to cross off your list, start thinking of it as a set of living documents that need to be maintained to remain effective. It can make all the difference.
Create an Ongoing Relationship with Your Attorney
Of course, if you are going to be meeting with an estate planning attorney periodically over your lifetime, it makes sense to choose one you actually like, and one who makes maintaining your estate plan easy, convenient, and affordable for you. At Brian M. Douglas & Associates, that’s why we offer our clients exclusive, free estate planning reviews every three years as a part of our flat-fee estate planning packages. Our experienced estate planning attorneys understand that you lead a busy life, so we work hard to make estate planning maintenance quick and convenient for you. Give our office a call at (770) 933-9009 for an update.