retirement

Create estate plan to avoid family feuds

Don TaylorQuestionDear Dr. Don,
My mom is 86. She has been very responsible with money her whole life. I worry her will is no longer valid, as it was written 10 to 20 years ago. I'd guess she has an estate worth $1 million to $2 million.

My most selfish worry is this: I am totally disabled. My Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance is only $700 per month, so my mom has paid my rent of $650 per month for the four years since I became disabled. I would be homeless without her help, and I am so afraid of what is going to happen to me when she's gone.

I've been told that after seven years a will is no longer any good. Is this true? How difficult is it to update her will? I feel so dependent and helpless. Now I don't sleep at night, and I worry about the "what ifs."

Please help me. Disabled was not how I saw myself at 55, but now I do not get to choose. I often feel embarrassed and ashamed about being disabled and the fact Mom pays my rent. Encouraging Mom to update her will is something I don't want to do, but I will if I'm sure of my information.
-- Nancy Nervous

AnswerDear Nancy,
I understand your concerns about how your life could change with your mom's passing. However, a will isn't a carton of milk. Laws concerning the validity of wills vary by state, but once validly executed, wills do not have an expiration date. Without an expiration date, a person's validly executed will remains valid until the writer's death. If your mother wishes to change her asset distribution plan, there may be a good reason for a new will. If your mother moved to another state after drafting her will, that is also a reason to review the will with a local attorney. However, most states do recognize a will properly executed in another state.

Your disability being more recent than the drafting of the will is a sound reason for your mother to consider revising her will. Depending on the type of assets held, it may be appropriate to create a special needs trust to provide for you after her death. Lawyers skilled in elder law or disability law can recommend alternatives for the family.

An adult child needs to recognize that to avoid family fights over assets after the death of a parent, it is best to make a carefully considered estate plan in advance. One note of caution: Remember that it is the parent whose decision must be respected on distribution of his or her income and assets. Such a child would want to avoid any accusation after the parent's death that he or she had exercised undue influence over the parent. Sound planning advice from an experienced attorney can help avoid this risk.

Thanks to Katherine C. Pearson, professor of law at the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University and director of its Elder Protection Clinic, for her assistance in answering this reader's question.

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