Estate planning attorneys work with clients every day to ensure their wishes are carried out in the event of illness or death. While it’s not pleasant to think about, planning ahead will make it easier for your loved ones during difficult times. An estate planning attorney can help you create documents (such as a Will and/or Trust) that provide instructions about distribution of your assets at death, minimize probate expenses and estate taxes, name guardians for minor children, and manage inherited assets for your beneficiaries. An estate planning attorney can also help you plan for incapacity by creating powers of attorney and health care documents that allow individuals you choose to make financial and health care decisions on your behalf.
Some estate planning firms advise clients on elder law matters — how to plan for long-term care (both pre-planning and addressing a crisis situation when the need for care is imminent), how to pay for that care (including whether you are eligible for public benefits such as Medicaid benefits), and whether advance planning is appropriate.
Here are five reasons you should call an estate planning attorney.
- You are a parent. If you are the parent of a minor child (defined as under the age of 18 in Massachusetts) you should have a Will that names a legal guardian for your child. Parents of minor children and young adults should also consider creating a Trust that will hold and manage assets for your child’s benefit, to ensure your child does not receive control of inherited assets at age 18, and to designate a trusted individual to manage those assets for your child until your child reaches an age that you deem is appropriate. If an adult child has substance abuse, gambling, or creditor problems, or is in a bad marriage, it may be appropriate to hold assets in trust to protect the assets and ensure they will be available for the child’s benefit in the future.
- You (or your spouse) receive a serious medical diagnosis. If you have a serious illness, sitting down with your estate planning attorney may not be at the top of your list. However, it is important to plan while you are competent to make decisions about your future. If you or your spouse need long-term care or anticipate the need for care in the future because of physical or mental decline, an estate planning attorney with knowledge of elder law can advise you about estate plan documents you should have in place and about your options for care and payment. Make it a priority to become educated about your options and work with an attorney to make a plan for the future.
- You are getting married or divorced. Marriage and divorce both impact your existing estate plan and necessitate changes to your documents. If you do not have an estate plan in place, these events provide a good reason to plan. An attorney can also help you review asset ownership and beneficiary designations to ensure a new (or ex-) spouse is provided for (or not) as appropriate. Prior to marriage, an estate planning attorney will help you determine whether a prenuptial agreement is appropriate. These agreements can protect assets owned prior to marriage (such as an interest in a family business or vacation home) or assets that are inherited during the marriage in the event of death or divorce. Prenuptial agreements are also important in second marriages to protect assets for children from a prior marriage.
- You have a spouse, child, grandchild or other beneficiary who has a disability. If you wish to leave assets to a disabled individual you need to take special care with your estate plan documents. Leaving an inheritance to a disabled beneficiary may cause a loss of benefits, including medical benefits. Leaving an inheritance in a properly drafted Trust can preserve eligibility for benefits and protect assets for the benefit of the disabled beneficiary.
- You have not reviewed your plan in a while. If you have a Will, Trust or other estate plan documents, it is important to keep your plan current. If it has been more than five years since you have met with an attorney to review your plan, take the time to do so. A few simple amendments to your documents may be all you need to bring your plan up to date. Even if more significant changes are needed, make those changes to ensure your plan will work as you intend, save time and expense, and minimize taxes — both for your benefit and for the beneficiaries of your estate.
You can find more information about these topics, including many articles on estate planning and elder law at www.ssbllc.com.
Attorney Maria Baler is an estate planning and elder law attorney and a partner with the Dedham law firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC. She is also a former director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (MassNAELA). For more information, visit www.ssbllc.com or call (781) 461-1020. This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney.