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Five Top Estate Planning Resolutions for the New Year

January is a time to make resolutions to do things better in the new year.  Here are five resolutions to make to ensure your estate plan is where it should be in 2019.

  1. Resolve to Have an Estate Plan

Most of the clients I meet who do not have a Will, Power of Attorney or other estate plan documents know they should have them, they have just put off this task – sometimes for much longer than they should.  Sometimes it’s the first time they have done any estate planning or spoken with a lawyer about Wills and Trusts. If you are similarly situated, make it one of your goals for 2019 to get an estate plan in place.  A simple plan (Will, Power of Attorney, Health Care documents) is better than nothing at all.  If you have young children or assets in excess of $1 million, a Trust may be advisable to meet your planning goals.  An experienced attorney who prepares Wills and Trusts as the primary focus of their practice will give you options and let you decide which plan is best for you at the moment.

If you already have estate plan documents in place (good job!) resolve to review those documents this year to make sure the documents still reflect your wishes.  If it has been more than five years since the documents were signed or you have had changes in your personal or financial situation, sit down with an estate planning attorney to identify any changes that should be made.

  1. Resolve to Get it Done Right

The advice of an experienced attorney is not cheap and estate planning attorneys are no exception.  However, making sure your assets go where you want them to go at your death, managing them properly for young beneficiaries, protecting assets for your family, avoiding probate and saving your beneficiaries as much income and estate tax as possible are important goals.  The way your estate plan is carried out will have a significant impact – positive or negative – on your family or other heirs.  When something is this important, make sure it’s done right. The temptation to draft your own Will or other legal documents is there and is frankly a poor planning option.  In my 31 years of practice I have yet to see a Will drafted by a client that will work as intended, and will not create more problems than it solves.  Proper estate planning is not something that can be done cost-effectively on your own. Seek the advice of an experienced estate planning attorney, not a general practitioner who prepares Wills along with divorce and personal injury law.  Get it done right, and you will have the peace of mind that crossing this task off your list will bring.

  1. Resolve to make sure your Beneficiary Designations are Up-to-Date

Many of your most significant assets – life insurance, retirement accounts, annuities – will be paid to a designated beneficiary at your death.  Properly designating those beneficiaries is more complicated than it may appear.   Understanding the implications of certain beneficiary designations is crucial.  For example, this can be especially significant in estate planning for a minor or disabled child. A trust for the benefit of a young or disabled beneficiary can be instrumental in avoiding a lengthy and costly court proceeding to appoint a guardian and in avoiding the loss of public benefits a disabled beneficiary may be receiving. Understanding how distributions from retirement accounts work after the death of the account owner, and how different beneficiary designations will impact the size, frequency and income tax payable on those distributions is crucial to making appropriate designations. Ensuring your beneficiary designations are consistent with your overall estate plan is critical to accomplishing your estate planning goals.

  1. Resolve to have Health Care Documents in Place

Much of the estate planning you do is for the benefit of your family or other heirs and will never impact you.  Creating health care documents that reflect your wishes is one area of estate planning that will directly and significantly impact you if you experience a period of illness prior to death.  Designating Health Care Agents to make health care decisions for you if you are unable, making sure the people you want to be able to get information from your physicians can do so and will not be obstructed by privacy laws, and determining your care preferences and communicating them to your Health Care Agents and physicians are all crucial to making sure your health care wishes are carried out.  In Massachusetts, the legal document that we use to make sure these things happen are Health Care Proxies, HIPAA Authorizations and Living Wills. The person you name to make health care decisions for you is called your Health Care Agent. These documents are all part of a complete estate plan, and arguably the most important part from your perspective.

  1. Resolve to Make Sure People You Care About Have a Plan Too.

Estate Planning is important for anyone over the age of 18. College-age children and elderly parents should have powers of attorney and health care documents that will allow someone to make financial and health care decisions for them if they are ill or incapacitated.  Parents of young children should name guardians for their children and create a trust to manage assets for young beneficiaries to avoid a child receiving control of an inheritance at age 18.  Parents who will leave a significant inheritance to their children should consider asset protection planning to protect inherited assets from a child’s creditors, divorcing spouse, etc.  Older couples or others with large estates can save their heirs significant estate taxes in Massachusetts with proper planning.  Elderly parents may want to plan to protect assets from long-term care liability.

If a friend or family member needs some inspiration to make estate planning a 2019 resolution, share this article with them.  Happy New Year!

Maria Baler, Esq. is an estate planning and elder law attorney and partner at Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC, a law firm based in Dedham. She is also a former director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (MassNAELA), and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Forum of Estate Planning Attorneys. 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.

January, 2019

© 2019 Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC