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How to Tell If Mom or Dad have “Inadequate” Documents

Editor's Note: The following is part 5 of an online series for National Sandwich Generation Month, aimed at bringing support and awareness to those families sandwiched between raising their kids and caring for aging parents.

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Having outdated and incomplete estate planning documents are the among top reasons that people approach their senior years with a false sense of security thinking everything will be taken care of if something happens to them. It’s just simply not true.

Again, there’s a very good chance that the estate plan mom or dad created 20 years ago will NOT work today to accomplish their goals or objectives.  Most likely, their life circumstances have changed and are not accurately reflected in their documents.

I can almost guarantee that the laws have changed too, as they do every few years. If a plan is not amended to take into account such changes in the laws and tax code, the plan could wind up as nothing more than an expensive stack of papers.  Don’t let this happen to your parents!

The following is a list of common situations and “triggers” that may indicate the need to update your estate plan.  If mom or dad has experienced any of these life changes, or it’s been at least three years since they have had their Will, Trust or other planning documents reviewed, it’s time to take them into an attorney’s office for a comprehensive look-through.

1) Marriage or Remarriage

While a spouse does often inherit by default, there are a lot of other considerations to make to an estate plan when a martial status changes.  This is especially true in the case of subsequent marriages and blended family situations.

2) Divorce

If you don’t want your ex-spouse to receive your property upon your death, it’s important to meet with your lawyer to ensure sure the ex’s name is removed as a beneficiary of accounts and policies, taken out of the will, removed from trusts, etc.

3) You’ve been widowed  

When one spouse passes away, the other will need to update his or her estate plan to reflect that change.  Not only will your beneficiaries likely change, but you may also have an inheritance from your spouse that now needs to be incorporated into your own estate plan.  And, if you and your spouse used a joint trust as part of the plan, its instructions now need to be carried out correctly and promptly.

4) You had a child or grandchild

The birth or adoption of a new family member means that aspects of your estate plan may need to be changed to accommodate new needs.  For example, you may want to create a college fund or set up a trust.  Consideration may also need to be made regarding the distribution of assets to children or grandchildren. Creating a trust may also be necessary to hold funds for the children/grandchildren until an age when the Grantor feels the beneficiary is mature enough to handle the responsibilities of having an inheritance.

5) Your financial situation has changed

Whether you’ve received some sort of windfall, gotten a significant increase in pay, or have lost your job, it is important to review your estate plan to determine if it provides for these changes.  If not, you’ll need your lawyer to adjust it appropriately.

6) You’ve purchased real estate

A home often represents an individual’s biggest life investment, and you want to be sure to cover it in your estate plan.  From how to pay it off to whom you want to leave it to and plenty in between, an estate planning lawyer will help incorporate this big change into your existing plan.

7) You started (or ended) a business

Starting or ending a business warrants a trip to the estate planning lawyer’s office for plenty of reasons, not the least of which is that it will certainly have some sort of effect on your financial situation.  Succession planning is another big aspect of running a business, as you’ll want to clearly outline what is to happen to the business if you die or become otherwise incapacitated.  A little legal planning now will save big headaches later.

There are, of course, other events that should likely trigger a call or visit to your lawyer, but these are some of the biggest.  Fortunately, with the major estate planning done, these types of updates will typically be fairly easy while benefiting you and your heirs greatly.

Talking to older or retired parents about their estate plan isn’t necessarily something we look forward to, but it is of utmost importance to take care of.  Simply put, not having the right documents in place can make caring for mom or dad significantly more difficult and expensive down the road. 

If you would like to discuss your family's particular situation, schedule a complimentary consultation. At this meeting, we will review your current family situation, as well as any documents your parents have in place. If they have an existing estate plan, we’ll check to see if it is strong enough to protect them as they age and let you know, according to the documents, what you can expect if incapacity or a medical crisis occurred tomorrow.

If it appears that your parents have everything in order and do not require any further planning, we’ll send you on your way with the peace of mind of knowing that you are well prepared for the future.

However, if your parents don’t have a plan or you are still concerned with the possibilities should they become incapacitated or require long-term care, we’ll guide you in determining your best options based on your goals and your parents’ goals, then craft an estate plan that reflects your parents’ wishes and provides for their long-term care needs.