Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

A Love Letter to Your Family
Senior couple meeting with an elder law attorney

A Love Letter to Your Family

Now, to the 70% of Americans who do not have an estate plan, the article “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’” from the Lockport Journal should help you understand why this is so important. One reason why people don’t take care of this simple task, is because they don’t fully understand why estate planning is needed. They think it’s only for the wealthy, or that it’s only for old people, or even that it’s only about death and taxes.

Consider this idea: an estate plan is about protecting yourself while you are alive, protecting your family when you have passed and leaving a legacy for the living.

Some of the main elements of an estate plan are to create and execute documents that provide for incapacity and death, as well as provide information about your assets, liabilities and wishes.

You’ve spent a lifetime accumulating assets. It is now time to sit down with family members and have a heart-to-heart talk about the details of the estate and what your intentions are with respect to its distribution. The subject of death can be challenging for all. However, discussing your estate plan is vital, if you want to protect your family from what might come after you are gone. Each family has its own goals, so it’s a good idea to talk about it frankly, while you still can.

Without discussions and an estate, the chances of a family split, assets not going where you had intended and unnecessarily higher costs in taxes and legal fees, are a very real possibility.

If speaking about these topics is too hard, you may want to write your family a love letter. It would contain all the information that your family would need at the time of your death or if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury.

Your estate plan should also include the documents needed, so your family can make decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. That includes a power of attorney, a health care directive and may include others specific to your situation.

Ideally, all this information will be located in one convenient place. Don’t put it on a computer where you use a password. If the family cannot access your computer, all your hard work will be useless to them. Put it in a folder or a notebook, that is clearly labeled and tell family members where it is.

They’ll need this information:

  • A list of your important contacts — your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, insurance broker and medical professionals.
  • Credit card information, frequent flier miles.
  • Insurance and benefits including all health, life, disability, long-term care, Medicare, property deeds, employment and any military benefits.
  • Documents including your will, power of attorney, birth certificates, military papers, divorce decrees and citizenship papers.

Think of these materials and discussions as your opportunity to make a statement for the future generation. If you don’t have an estate plan in place already or if you have not reviewed your estate plan in more than a few years, it’s time to make an appointment for a review. Your life may have not changed, but tax laws have, and you’ll want to be sure your estate is not entangled in old strategies that no longer benefit your family.

Reference: Lockport Journal (Feb. 16, 2019) “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’”