Q. My wife and I created our estate planning documents about 10 years ago and we really have not even looked at them since. Do you have any thoughts about when we should consider updating them?
A. Yes, I do. I would tie a review and update into a New Year’s Resolution. Many of us resolve to eat healthier and exercise more in the New Year. I would suggest another resolution: persons who have not created an estate plan should resolve to create one; and those who have already created one, such as yourself, should resolve to update them as need and changes in the law may now require.
A very basic estate plan would typically consist of the following legal documents: a “Living Trust”, a backup Will, a Durable Power of Attorney, an Advance Health Care Directive, and a HIPAA Release for each person. These legal documents are designed to be reviewed, modified and updated as circumstances change. Benchmarks for updating them might include: changes in family structure, such as births, deaths, divorces and marriages; changes in your finances or asset ownership; changes in your ability to manage your own affairs and/or the onset of incapacity; the need for long-term care; the disability of a spouse or child; and changes in tax law.
However, as much as we encourage clients to review and update their estate planning documents, too few actually take that advice. In fact, I have seen wills of deceased parents, prepared two or three decades earlier, which still refer to their children as minors, and others that mention only one child when the parents subsequently had more children. Outdated documents can sometimes be more problematic than none at all.
If it has been 10 years or so since you created your documents, you very likely have provisions in them which were designed with old tax law in mind, and which would now might make administration of your estate unduly cumbersome. Example: for married couples, it was common practice years ago, when the estate tax exemption was only $1 million per person or less, of requiring asset splits and sub trust funding at the first spouse’s death in order to minimize the estate tax bite for the survivor’s estate. Now, with the federal estate tax exemption increased to $11.4 Million per person (for persons dying in 2019), and the corresponding option for married couples to double that amount by making a timely election, the need for burdensome sub-trust funding is no longer necessary for most couples. If your 10 year-old plan falls into this category, you may wish to modify it by eliminating this sub-trust requirement and thereby make asset management easier for the survivor.
For those who have not created an estate plan, I would encourage them to do so. Sometimes setting a specific calendar deadline is helpful, such as by setting a goal of creating or updating your plan by March 31 of the New Year.
The New Year is a time for renewal. Let’s add getting your legal affairs in order to your other resolutions. Your elder law or estate planning attorney can assist you in crafting or updating your plan to meet your present circumstances.