When Should I Update My Estate Plan?

An estate plan that was suitable a few years ago may no longer be suitable today. One should look to update their estate planning every three to five years or even sooner if you experience a dramatic change in life circumstances.

John and Laura had estate plans created shortly after their marriage in 2002. After learning of Laura’s infidelity, John undertook divorce proceedings but failed to update his estate plan to remove Laura. For the past five years John has had a serious girlfriend. Last week John was diagnosed with prostate cancer and wants to ensure his girlfriend gets his estate in the event of his death. Laura has an adult special needs son, Bill, and John would like some of the assets to go to Bill for his care. He feels that his family is aware of such intentions and that hiring an attorney is an unnecessary cost. Is John right?

A change in your marital status should be followed by a change in your estate plan. It is important to note that in Massachusetts, marriage voids a will executed prior to the marriage, unless the will appears as though it was made in contemplation of marriage. Divorce may also necessitate modifying an existing estate plan to disinherit an ex-spouse. Contrary to conventional wisdom, just because you’re divorced does not automatically remove your ex-spouse as a beneficiary of an account such as an IRA. Consider the revision or replacement of your estate plan as a part of the divorce process, which will look at all the pieces of your estate to make sure you are not overlooking something.

If your named executors, beneficiaries under your will/trust, or other beneficiaries are no longer in your life, you definitely want to update your documents to reflect a new beneficiary or executor. You may also want to include a new child, grandchild, niece or nephew who has been born after your last will was signed. John should make sure that his ex-wife is removed from all of his assets.

If a beneficiary becomes disabled, or has special needs, you may wish to update your estate plan to accommodate the increased needs of that individual by creating a Special Needs Trust (SNT). A SNT will allow assets to be protected for the disabled beneficiary without disqualifying him or her from receiving government benefits when you pass. A SNT within John’s estate plan would ensure that any funds left to Bill did not effect his benefits.

You might not be aware of all of the changes in estate-planning law, but new cases or statutes might have an impact on the structure of your individual estate plan. Have your attorney revisit your estate plan every few years to ensure its compliance with the current law. For example, John doesn’t know that the Power of Attorney statute changed in Massachusetts recently. He should ensure that his document complies with the new law.

Documents that need to be included in an estate plan and the manner of signature may vary on a state-by-state basis. Some states require more written witnesses and others do not recognize hand-written wills. Upon relocation to another state, review your estate-planning documents to ensure their validity in your new state. This is another example of why you should not look to make your estate plan yourself or use pre-printed forms. John’s original Will was drafted in Rhode Island. He’ll need a Massachusetts document now that he lives here and is looking to make changes anyway since his divorce.

Your estate plan is not something that should be executed once and placed in a safety deposit box. Make sure that you review it at least every few years and whenever your life changes OR the life of your beneficiary changes. If your life has changed significantly since you last did your estate planning, or it’s been more than five years since you executed your documents, be sure to consult with a qualified estate planning attorney, like Attorney Kristina Vickstrom, that can perform an estate plan review to let you know your plan is all set for a few more years or recommend any proper updates and changes.

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