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As life happens and things change — and as you pass big milestones like getting married, having children or retiring — your estate plan and will should change too.
“Once a person reaches the age of 18, they should at least have powers of attorney to designate who will make their healthcare decisions and handle their finances in the event of disability,” explains Jennifer Guimond-Quigley, the Chicago-based managing attorney of her eponymous firm focused on family law, estate planning and administration. “Once a person begins accumulating assets and having children, it’s vitally important to have an estate plan in place.”
The risk of not having a current estate plan and will that reflects your wishes is great. “When individuals do not put any plan into place, it leads to confusion, chaos and unintended consequences,” she says.
Think of this as your starter guide to keeping your estate plan up-to-date, using these important life events as triggers to remind you to discuss your current situation with a trusted attorney.
Most likely you and your future spouse have had some financial conversations before getting engaged, but if not, once wedding plans are in place, it’s important to discuss all facets of each partner’s financial landscape and the desired distribution of assets.
A couple needs to determine if they want a prenuptial agreement, the totals of their separate and joint assets and who they want their assets to go to in case one or both spouses should pass away.
“Based off of these factors and the prenuptial agreement, an estate plan that satisfies both parties will need to be created,” explains Guimond-Quigley.
Starting a family
The decision to have a child is a big — and joyous — occasion, and it comes with the responsibility of planning for that child’s care as long as he or she is a minor.
“We’ve been shocked at how few parents have wills in place, because they’re so young,” says Jenny Xia Spradling, co-founder of FreeWill, a site that creates wills and trusts at no cost. “Even if you don’t have so many assets, a will takes care of things and specifies who will take care of your children if you pass.”
You and your partner will want to decide if and how much of your assets will go to your children in the case of a death, at what age your children will inherit those assets and choose a legal guardian.
You can also work with your lawyer to determine when your child/children will receive those assets, either all at once or over a period of time. “Not having a guardian designated for minor children can mean that a judge who doesn’t know your family gets to decide who will care for your children,” says Guimond-Quigley.
When one of her clients passed away, he left his wife and children behind. Some of his accounts with no beneficiary designated had to be distributed 50 percent to the wife and 50 percent to the minor children to comply with the intestate inheritance laws. “That meant that the mother had to be appointed the guardian over the funds for the children and report to the court how those funds were being utilized for them on an annual basis,” Guimond-Quigley recalls. “Had her husband simply executed a will naming his wife as 100 percent beneficiary as he likely intended, a guardianship would never have been necessary.”
If a couple decides to uncouple, it’s vital to update the now-separate estates. When one of Guimond-Quigley’s clients neglected to change the beneficiary designations for her trust after getting divorced, disaster ensued.
“It resulted in her ex-husband getting the life insurance that was supposed to be paid out to the trust to provide liquidity to pay off debts and administration expenses. As a result, the estate was insolvent and the house her husband wished to continue residing in had to be sold. She would never have wanted that result,” she says. “Not only is it important to plan, but it’s important to follow up with any additional steps after the plan is in place, such as funding of trusts, to ensure it works the way it should.”
When setting up a retirement fund such as 401k or a Roth IRA, beneficiaries are named upon setting up the account. This means that there’s a chance the beneficiaries on the respective retirement accounts could be decades old. So, the retiree should look at their total retirement assets and update their beneficiaries to reflect their current relationship and financial landscape.
Other life events
The reasons why you should re-evaluate your estate plan are almost endless, but Guimond-Quigley points out that there are a few rules of thumb to consider.
“Any substantial change in assets, a move to another state or country, the death or disability of a person named in their current estate plan, a change in tax laws, a disability of a beneficiary that arises after the initial plan is executed, and/or the birth or death of a child are all important life events that could trigger a revision of a person’s estate plan,” she says.