The new year is a good time to reflect on what’s important to us and commit to making ourselves and our world better. Whether we make resolutions to reconnect with friends, lose weight, volunteer our time or run a marathon, chances are that we’ll soon find ourselves back to our daily routines with little to show for those resolutions.
But there is one resolution that should be on everyone’s list, and it isn’t a hard one to fulfill. At the start of every year, we should all review and revisit our estate planning. Just like going for your annual checkup at the dentist, it is basic self-care. Before things go wrong, take the time now to schedule an annual checkup with your attorney. Make sure everything is in place and there are no holes that need filling. Make sure your attorney is still in practice and, if not, find yourself a new attorney whom you can trust.
The Right People
Estate planning is fundamentally about people. We want to make sure that our loved ones will be provided for when we’re no longer here. We want assurance that people we trust will oversee the administration of our estates and follow our wishes. We want to know that we haven’t left someone out or included someone who shouldn’t be there.
What better time to check the “people” box than after the holidays? We’ve spent time with friends and extended family, and we’ve seen changes. It may be wise to revisit our family tree and identify new or different branches. Children have grown into adulthood, they’ve married, they’ve had their own children. What we planned to leave them as minors no longer makes sense for the adults at our holiday tables. Plans we made for them years ago may no longer be appropriate. Sadly, people have also passed away in the last year. Now may be the time to reflect this in our estate plans by reallocating assets or naming new beneficiaries.
The people we’ve named as executors or entrusted with powers of attorney may no longer be the right individuals for those positions. They may have experienced their own health issues, shown signs of memory loss or undergone life changes that make them less capable of performing the role they’ve been assigned. They may even have predeceased us. While creating a new will or trust takes time and thought, creating a new power of attorney or naming a new executor is a simple process. Set aside the time now to get it done correctly.
The Right Valuation
The property we plan to pass to our heirs has also probably gone through changes. A house may have been damaged or destroyed by a major weather event. Real estate that we acquired decades ago may have appreciated far more than we anticipated. If our intent is to leave equal shares to our beneficiaries, the new value of such property is likely to skew that allocation.
Engage an expert to provide current valuations for real property, artwork and other high-value assets that will be part of your estate. The numbers they provide you should make it possible to adjust distributions as necessary to achieve your intended goals. If you expect to see significant changes during the year – from selling property or making other adjustments – don’t wait until next year to order a new valuation. The better your numbers, the better chance that your wishes will be met.
The Right Laws
Taxes, like death, are unavoidable. But understanding how the laws have changed will allow you to maximize the estate you leave to your next of kin. As estate tax and gift tax limit numbers are adjusted for inflation, you may be able to increase the amount of gifts to children and grandchildren. Other changes to laws – both at the federal and state levels – could affect how your assets are distributed.
The annual checkup should include a review of recent changes to laws, as well as a legal forecast for the coming year. Is new legislation pending that could impact your choices? How aggressive should you be based on expectations regarding the laws? Even if there have been no legal changes – some states’ legislators meet only in alternate years – you may have experienced life changes that have legal consequences. Talk with your attorney about how to respond to these changes.
Just as with your doctor visit, your estate planning checkup should arm you with an action plan. You may leave the meeting with a to-do list, such as arranging for new powers of attorney and new valuations, or you may leave it feeling confident that your estate plan is in good health.
In either event, you will be prepared for whatever should happen in the new year.
Jack Hales is a founding partner at Hales & Sellers PLLC and is board-certified in Estate Planning and Probate Law. Hales primarily focuses on areas of estate planning and probate, including representation of executors, fiduciaries and beneficiaries in uncontested and contested estate and trust matters.
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