“Dear New Year’s Resolution: Well, it was fun while it lasted.
Sincerely, Jan. 2 — Anonymous.
By the time you read this, most New Year’s resolutions will have already been forgotten. While the typical resolutions focus on fitness, weight loss, self-improvement or job changes, getting your estate plan and assets in order rarely makes the list.
According to a recent study by One Poll, a shocking 3 out of 5 Americans do not have a Will or other estate plan in place. The same poll found nearly 3 in 10 Americans do not know if their parents have a Will.
Another survey by caring.com found an alarming 79 percent of millennials have no Will, which is actually an improvement over prior polls.
The potential for family turmoil, litigation and/or excessive legal and court costs caused by not having a proper estate plan is limitless. Besides the irreparable damage done to family relationships when fighting over assets, the cost of litigation may drain an estate to nothing.
A few of the many issues left unresolved by poor or no estate planning: Who will care and provide for minor or disabled children left behind? Who will gain title to a home or other real property? What will happen to your bank accounts, stocks, bonds, 401(k) and other IRA/retirement plans? What if the beneficiaries on your life insurance die before you? If you lawfully own handguns, are you willing to have them be turned over to authorities? Who will get your vehicles, antiques, family heirlooms and collectibles? Also, if it is your strong intention to leave your assets to a special charity, friend or distant relative, dying without a Will makes such “intentions” meaningless.
Where to begin?
1. List your goals & fears. Among the most common goals: ensuring guardians are in place for minor or disabled children; making sure there will be enough assets to cover college costs; protecting assets/primary residence from being lost to nursing home expenses; making sure your spouse, children, grandchildren or other loved ones are provided for, etc. Conversely, a common fear is that assets will go to a less desirable relative or one who is very irresponsible with assets.
2. Get your assets organized. Crafting an estate plan best suited to your needs requires a working knowledge of your net worth, knowing most people greatly underestimate their assets. Similar to preparing your tax return, compile your most recent statements: bank accounts, CDs, money markets, investment/brokerage accounts, annuities, bonds, stocks, IRAs [including 401(k), 457, 403(b) and tax sheltered annuity plans], life insurance (both death benefits and cash value, if any), estimated value of your home and other real property, automobiles, firearms, business interests and any other assets.
If you have a multitude of funds and find yourself confused or overwhelmed by this task, utilize a financial planner to make investment and/or consolidation recommendations to streamline your finances. A good financial planner will work in conjunction with an estate attorney (and vice versa) to make sure your beneficiaries are up to date for your accounts. Most people do not view or classify this step as “estate planning” when it is actually a critical component of any estate plan.
3. Design your plan with an estate attorney. With your goals and financial information in hand, put your estate attorney to work to present options to best design and complete your plan. With the explosion of divorce and blended families, one-size-fits-all Wills can be both obsolete and create more chaos as the family dynamic changes. Also, the longer a person puts off completing an estate plan, a nursing home stay may become more of a reality which can warrant setting up an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust to protect assets. An estate planning attorney should be able to thoroughly review and advise on these types of options.
4. Make sure it gets done! There is great satisfaction that comes with finality. Don’t wait for the ever elusive “perfect time”, tax return time or until the vacation is over. Make the appointment with your estate planning attorney to ensure your documents are completed and then cross this very essential item off your To-Do list. More important, a generation of assets and personal and real property can be protected, preserved and distributed to those loved ones you have chosen, and to those who will appreciate them the most.
5. Update your Estate Plan as needed. Your estate plan should be reviewed with an estate attorney every 3-5 years to make sure no revisions are needed. A lot changes as the years go by: people are born, die, get divorced, relationships change for better or worse, you can gain or lose substantial assets, become disabled or suffer from a debilitating illness and of course your beneficiaries are all vulnerable to the same changes. An estate attorney should be able to steer you through life changes to keep your plan current.
Let 2020 be the year you preserve and protect your assets and give yourself and your family the gift of peace of mind should some tragic turn of events occur.
*This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.
James S. Rizzo is an attorney with the law firm of Rheinhardt and Bray, P.C., with offices in Rome and Ilion, N.Y. and serving the central New York area. He has more than 24 years of legal experience and currently concentrates in Estate Planning matters, including Wills, Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts, Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Asset Protection, Medicaid applications and planning. He can be reached at 315-339-0503 or email@example.com for a confidential initial consultation. Visit us on the web at: www.CNYElderLaw.com.