It’s that time of year again when we resolve to do better in the coming year than we did in the past year. Exercise regularly, eat healthy, and get better sleep are common January pledges. The new year is also a good time to resolve to take action on your estate plan. Read on for five estate planning resolutions for 2023.
1. Create or Update your Estate Plan
If you don’t currently have an estate plan (Will, Power of Attorney, health care documents and maybe a Trust), resolve to remedy that situation in 2023. Creating an estate plan is important for everyone age 18 and older. Even if your assets are modest, it is vital to appoint people who are legally authorized to make decisions for and about you if you experience a period of incapacity. If you have young children, a large estate, a beneficiary with disabilities, a second marriage, multiple properties, or other more complex situations, a Trust may be advisable to meet your planning goals. If you have an estate plan but it has been more than five years since you reviewed your plan, resolve to meet with your estate planning attorney to review and update your plan as needed.
2. Check your Beneficiary Designations
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. If you have minor children to provide for, or if you want to benefit a person with disabilities who receives, or may receive, needs-based governmental benefits, it is best that assets pay to a Trust for those beneficiaries. 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.
3. Resolve to Fund your Trust
If you have created a Living Trust as part of your estate plan, follow through and retitle your assets as directed by your estate planning attorney. Two of the main reasons for creating Trusts include probate avoidance and estate tax savings. However, your Trust will not achieve these goals if you do not change the ownership of your assets during your lifetime from your individual (or joint) names to the name of your Trust. There is no question that this can be a time-consuming task since it may involve meeting with a customer service representative at the bank, calling financial institutions to determine the process for making the change, completing the paperwork, and then following up with the companies to confirm that the changes have been properly instituted. However, these steps are essential to the success of your plan. If you are not able to accomplish the trust funding tasks, contact your estate planning attorney to obtain assistance. Many estate planning law firms offer trust funding services.
4. Provide copies of your Health Care Documents to your Health Care Agent
Documents expressing wishes regarding end-of-life-care and instructions regarding medical treatment are a vital part of every estate plan. In Massachusetts, these often include a Health Care Proxy and a Living Will. A Health Care Proxy is the legal document used to appoint the person who will make health care decisions for you if you are not able to do so. The appointed individual is called your Health Care Agent. A Living Will is not a binding legal document in Massachusetts but is used as a way to express a person’s wish that extraordinary medical measures not be used to prolong life in circumstances where death is imminent. Once signed, copies of these documents should be provided to your Health Care Agent and a copy of your Health Care Proxy should be given to your primary care physician’s office as well as to any other doctors who regularly treat you. We recommend that you provide these documents to your Health Care Agent electronically. That way your Health Care Agent can save those electronic copies on their phone or in their cloud-storage service (Dropbox, Google drive, etc.) so that they are immediately accessible. You should save your own Health Care Proxy, as well as the Proxies of anyone for whom you may be named as Health Care Agent, on your phone or in the cloud as well.
5. Organize your Financial Records
A primary purpose of estate planning is to make it easier for people to help you if you become incapacitated and to ease the burden on the people who will be dealing with your estate when you pass away. One of the greatest gifts you can give the people you have named to these positions, is the gift of well-organized records. We handle a lot of estate and trust settlement matters in my office and one of the hardest parts for family members or others named as fiduciaries is finding information about assets: bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, pensions, life insurance, etc. The same is true for debts and monthly bills. This problem has become worse as more and more people move to paperless status for their accounts and bill pay. Keeping an up-to-date list of all of your accounts and a file folder with a paper copy of a recent statement will be incredibly helpful to the person who is trying to manage these for you. Set up a file with folders for your life insurance, long-term care insurance, each retirement account, your pension, each bank account, etc. Do the same for your bills and don’t forget bills that are paid less frequently than monthly such as annual life insurance, homeowner’s insurance, etc. Create a folder for your car with a copy of the registration, the title or lease agreement, auto insurance, car loan, etc. If you have records that are only stored electronically such as income tax returns, create a folder and include information about how to access those electronic records. Start in January and add to it each month and by next December you will have compiled a complete set of your records.
Good luck with the dieting, exercising and sleeping better in 2023. If we can help with your estate planning, please contact our office to schedule a time to speak with one of our attorneys. Happy New Year and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2023!
Attorney Suzanne R. Sayward is a partner with the Dedham law firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. She is certified as an Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation, a private organization whose standards for certification are not regulated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 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. For more information visit our website at www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
© 2023 Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC