Clients tend not to want to deal with estate planning until they absolutely have to. In my 30 years of practice, I’ve found that the two most common times clients revise an estate plan are when a vacation is coming up and when a friend or family member has just died or received a bad diagnosis, leading the client to contemplate his or her own mortality. But both of those events are the wrong time to do proper estate planning. It is very difficult to plan when facing a medical emergency, sudden illness, or recent death in the family, and it’s equally difficult to do proper planning when the client just wants a quick fix before he or she gets on a plane.
For these reasons, it may be helpful for you to bring up certain key issues with clients who are on the fence about estate planning, so that they can visualize the consequences of not having an up-to-date plan. One way to do so would be to hand them this column before you begin working with them.
Health care proxies. All members of your family who have attained the age of majority should have signed and updated health care proxies or health care durable powers of attorney. It is also a good idea to list the cellphone numbers of all relevant people on these documents and to give copies of them to your health care agent (the person designated by the health care proxy to make health care decisions) as well as one or two and backup people so that they can be easily accessed.
Having a health care proxy is especially important if you have children going off to college. Under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rules, once a child attains the age of majority, his or her parents cannot access the grown child’s medical information without permission. Without a signed health care proxy, you will not able to make medical decisions for your child in the event he or she is unable to make them.
Guardians or conservators. As you age, you need to decide who will be in charge should you lose the ability to handle financial affairs. A durable power of attorney can be used to handle financial affairs should you become disabled or incapacitated.
However, even if you have a valid durable power of attorney in place, there are certain situations where protective proceedings must commence for someone to be appointed your guardian or conservator. The durable power of attorney can include a provision that nominates this person.
Note that the nomination is just that: a nomination, not an appointment. But, should protective proceedings commence in court, the court is obligated to notify the person or persons you named as guardian or conservator that the proceeding is underway and that they have been nominated. In my experience that gives you a fighting chance that the person you nominated will be the person who serves in that capacity. (This is especially important if you’re worried that your family members may dispute your guardianship or if you’re in a nontraditional relationship or a second marriage.)
Durable powers of attorney. Retirement planning assets (such as IRAs, Keogh, etc.) are owned by the plan holder. Without a durable power of attorney, no one automatically has the power to make investment decisions, take a hardship withdrawal, or roll the asset over for you should you become disabled or incapacitated. This is true even if you’re married. However, if you’ve established a durable power of attorney and given the attorney-in-fact (the agent) the authority to deal with the retirement planning asset, then the attorney-in-fact will be able to take those actions.
Likewise, while you’re alive, you are the only person who can transact any real estate you own (including any jointly owned real estate). No one else automatically has the right to handle your assets. This is true even if you’re married and own real estate jointly with your spouse. If you and your spouse jointly own a piece of real estate and you become disabled, that asset is frozen unless you have given someone the legal authority through the durable power of attorney to deal with it.
Updating the entire estate plan along with a will or a trust. If changes are made to a will or a trust—such as a change in beneficiary—it is important to make sure you coordinate your entire financial picture alongside those documents so that the plan remains integrated.
Periodic revisions of the estate plan. In general, you should revise your estate plan at least every five years. Other times to do so include death, disability, divorce, marriage, the birth or adoption of children, the serious illness of a beneficiary or named fiduciary, a substantial increase or decrease in the size of your estate, the purchase or sale of a business, significant gifting or lending of money to a child, change of residence, or the purchase of real estate in another jurisdiction. Changes in the tax laws may also necessitate that you revisit your estate plan.
It is a challenge for all of us to think about estate planning when there is no immediate reason to do so. It is very easy to put it off planning for one more day—then one more day. But life can be unpredictable. You don’t want to have to deal with a death, serious illness, or other unforeseen event without a proper estate plan in place. The time to secure that plan is now.