Welcome to May! Not only is it the month of flowering trees, flowering shrubs, and well, flowering flowers, it is also National Elder Law Month. Elder law attorneys advise clients about a variety of issues, one of which is estate planning. However, estate planning is not just for older adults. As an estate planner and elder law attorney, I can cite a number of reasons why everyone over the age of 18 should have an estate plan. But what motivates most people to pick up the phone and make an appointment with an attorney to create their Will? I conducted a very un-scientific study of why clients decide to create or update their estate plan.
Here are the top five reasons that people decide to create or update their estate plan – in descending order.
5. They want to provide instructions for end-of-life care. Many people feel strongly about how they want to be cared for at the end of their lives. So long as someone is healthy enough to articulate instructions for their own care, they may direct the course of their care. But if a person is unwell and unable to articulate those instructions, then the only way their wishes can be carried out is if they have provided advance instructions about the care they wish to receive and appointed someone who has the legal authority to implement those instructions.
4. They want their estate to avoid probate. Probate avoidance is one of the primary reasons that people create an estate plan and rightfully so. Probate is the process of changing the title on assets when someone passes away from the deceased person’s name to the name of the legal representative for the estate. Probate is costly, it is a public proceeding, it invites contests and it takes a long time. Luckily, avoiding probate is fairly easy. Only assets that are in a person’s individual name at the time of death and that do not have a joint owner or beneficiary designated to receive them need to be probated. Owning assets jointly with another person (when appropriate), making sure there are beneficiaries designated on assets such as IRAs, 401Ks, annuities, and life insurance, and creating and funding a Living Trust, are all ways to avoid probate.
3. They want to reduce or eliminate estate taxes. The estate tax is a tax imposed on the value of assets an individual owns (or is deemed to own) at death. There is both a federal estate tax and a Massachusetts estate tax. The good news is that federal law gives each person a $12 million exemption from federal estate tax. As such, there are very few people who need to pay federal estate tax. The bad news is that Massachusetts grants its citizens only a $1 million freebie from estate tax. For many residents of Massachusetts who own a home, have a retirement account, and own life insurance, this $1 million threshold is quickly reached. Undertaking planning to reduce or eliminate the estate tax that their families will pay from their estates at death is a goal for many whose estate will subject to the estate tax.
2. They want to protect their assets from having to be spent down on long-term care costs. Many clients tell us they are concerned about the cost of long-term care and worried that those costs will consume all of their assets. Given the very high cost of long-term care, whether delivered at home or in a skilled nursing facility, these concerns are warranted. Learning about the options for planning to protect assets from needing to be spent down on long-term care well in advance of needing such care is vital to the success of achieving this goal. Learning the pros and cons of such planning, and why for some it may not be necessary, are also important. Long-term care planning is very specific to each individual, and is an area in which it is especially important for each client to get advice about their own particular circumstances.
1. They want to provide for and protect their loved ones. The number one concern that clients have is for their families. Whether it’s parents with young children, older folks with grown children, a married couple with no children, or the favorite auntie or uncle, they all want to make sure their loved ones are taken care of when they are no longer around to do so. This means different things at different stages of life. For parents of young children, it means naming guardians for those children and ensuring there are resources available to raise them. For those with adult beneficiaries, it may mean setting up their plan to provide creditor protection for the inheritance they leave to children or nieces and nephews. And for older couples, making sure that the survivor of them is left in the best possible circumstances upon the death of the first spouse is of paramount concern.
There are many reasons people make the decision to create or update their estate plan on a given day. Sometimes it’s circumstantial, such as the death of a loved one or a medical diagnosis. But underneath those circumstances is a desire to ‘get one’s house in order’. If we can help you with your estate or long-term care planning, please contact us to schedule a time to speak with one of our experienced estate planning and elder law attorneys.
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.
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