Now before you roll your eyes and say, “RJ, isn’t this a morbid idea for the holidays?”, let me tell you a story about a family situation that I dealt with in my office a few years ago.
A family visited my office one October after losing their mother shortly after Columbus Day. Now this family was quite close and their grief was obvious. What we discussed was the fact that their mother, who was a widow, had no will. After several weeks of putting affairs into place, we began to plan for the probate process. This is when the problems began.
There were four children in this family and each wanted items from the estate. To be clear, this was not an issue of money but of keepsakes and something as small as a photo album began to split this family apart. Attorney P. Mark Accentra wrote about this in his book, “Blood and Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance and What to Do About It”.
He stated “what appears as greed and pettiness are really symptoms of survivors’ struggle to feel loved and important. The fight for money and things – Dad’s Watch, Mom’s wedding ring – is not about the object or the money itself, but about what they symbolize: importance, love, security, self-esteem, connectedness and immortality.”
This family’s battles carried into the holiday season – a time when families typically come together – and added to the stress of the loss and the time of year. Because there existed no estate plan, the probate process carried on into the next holiday season as well and fractured a once strong family. Advanced planning and an estate plan could have mitigated this situation.
An estate plan is something that every family needs. Estate planning is not only for retired people either. Having a plan in place is good for families in all stages of life including marriage, the birth of children and planning for retirement. Documents like a Will, a Power of Attorney and a Living Will certainly lays out how you want your wishes met.
If you have children, appointing a guardian in case something happens to you is of paramount importance. If you do not do this, the minor children could become wards of the state and may leave the assignment of guardians to a judge. A will is a simple way to appoint a guardian should the worst case scenario arise.
And like other gifts that are given to reflect the specific likes of your loved ones, an estate plan can be customized to meet the dynamics of the family. In the estate plan, you have the power to create documents that fit best for your family. Because a Will may not meet the needs you are looking for, documents like Trusts can be developed and designing specific needs for other assets like life insurance can be covered.
An estate plan is a way to protect and provide for those you care about when you are no longer here and it’s not just about protecting your cash and other assets. This plan also provides peace of mind to those in times of uncertainty.
If you think giving the gift of an estate plan too personal a gift, then give a gift certificate for the cost of a basic plan and let your loved one design it to fit their specific needs. And if you still think that such a gift is “too morbid”, then rename it, perhaps calling it the 'Jones Family Legacy Plan'.
If you already have an estate plan, then the holidays are a great time to pull it out and review it as things may have changed since you first put it together. Some of the things you want to think about are:
1. Are Your Documents Safe? – Make sure that all the documents that are part of your estate plan are safely stored so others can find them in the result that they are needed. Does your attorney or fiduciary know where to find them? Are they in a fire-proof safe? Do other family members know their location and how to access them in case of an emergency? Perhaps during the time since your drew up your plan, the healthcare proxy or attorney may have retired or moved, have you updated these?
If you go to the Connelly Law Website, you can find a document that can help you organize your important documents.
2. Have Personal Life Events Changed? – So what has happened in your life since you put together the plan? Divorces? Births or deaths? Perhaps you have inherited money or property, have they been included in the plan. Did you make major purchases or move to another state where some of the rules governing estate planning may be different. If so, you may ant to contact your attorney to review the documents and make sure the protections you are looking for still exist.
3. Guardians for Minor Children – this is extremely important should something happen to you. Perhaps those you have named in the initial plan to serve as guardians or fiduciaries for minor children have had major changes in their lives. Births, marriage and sickness may effect the original planning and new individuals need to be named.
4. Do the original trusts put into place still work for your children? – perhaps a child became ill since you did the plan or perhaps now have special needs that must be accommodated. Has a child become involved in questionable activity that may require special oversight? These things are important to consider.
5. Are you still content with the beneficiaries you named? – Many people change jobs frequently today and as such, benefits such as life insurance policies and 401K plans change. Are the beneficiaries named still current? Perhaps your company changed the administrators of those plans. Are the beneficiaries up to date? Have your own life circumstances changed like a divorce or a marriage. Make sure you review these documents.
6. Are your insurance documents in sync with current circumstances? – Again, have your life circumstances changed since you put these plans into place? Do you have enough coverage to cover your family if it has grown since you last purchased the plan? Is there enough coverage to help in the event of a disability?
Just like you are urged to check the batteries in your smoke detectors every year when the clocks are turned back, you should check your estate plan at the holiday season to ensure that it is up to date. Make this holiday season the one where you protect your financial and personal future and give a gift that will protect your family for years to come!
For more information on Estate Planning, visit our website or click on the downloadable and printable brochure below.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.