Revising Your Estate Plan with the Times

Published 06 September 2017

The Only Constant in Life is Change

As I often mention during the meeting where a client signs their estate plan documents,  an estate plan is “not designed to be set in stone forever.”   The majority of estate plans and their respective documents are designed to evolve as the individual’s life changes.   Without this ability to amend or revise, an estate plan often becomes outdated and practically useless.

On several occasions, I have met with adult children attempting to resolve their parents’ estate.   The children are grown often with children and sometimes grandchildren of their own.  The children were constantly told by their parents that “we have a Will in place” or “you don’t need to worry because the Trust will take care of everything.”   Once the parents have passed, the children discover a Will or Trust that is so completely out of date, it is practically useless.   In some circumstances, I have reviewed Wills and Trusts that were created in the early 1970s and never revised once.   On occasion, I have reviewed estate plan documents from as far back as the 1950s.   These documents address children who are now adults with children/grandchildren of their own as if they are minors, individuals with assignments of responsibility who have long ago passed away, and outdated directives referencing laws and statutes that have been revised several times after the documents creation.

At a minimum, an outdated estate plan causes logistical problems for the children/beneficiaries as they attempt to unravel what should occur.   Unfortunately, it also leads forcing the estate into the probate court system.   In the worst situations, the outdated documents cause confusion between individuals.  When confusion happens disputes inevitably occur.   This leads to the accrual of thousands of dollars in legal fees, costs, and expenses.   What should have been a simple process now becomes complicated, time consuming, subject to delay, and expensive.

In order to avoid any issue and the resulting confusion and disputes that can develop, regular review and updating of an estate plan is essential.   In order to assist in the process, I have the following suggestions.

Review your estate plan when a major life event occurs.   Major life events have the ability to quickly make an estate plan obsolete.   These major life events can include the following:

  1. Addition of new beneficiaries. This may include the birth of a child, grandchild, or when an adoption occurs.   In order to avoid any confusion or dispute from occurring I recommend that you specifically designate who is to be a beneficiary and who is not.
  2. Death of individuals. Often mentioned in estate plans are individuals who are either beneficiaries or fiduciaries with responsibilities to carry out.   If one of these individuals has passed away, an estate plan should be modified to replace him or her with a living individual.
  3. Divorce. Oftentimes, estate plans will list a married couple as holding joint responsibility.   This often is seen while addressing guardians of underage children.   If a divorce of the couple occurs, revisions would be needed to specify which of the individuals should have this responsibility or another individual/couple should be named.
  4. Children becoming adults. Often an estate plan should evolve to take into consideration children who are now adults and should be given greater responsibility.    

When these events occur, it should trigger a red flag for a review and revisions of an estate plan.

Even if a major life event has not occurred, I always recommend that a review of an estate plan occur at least once a year.   That way, the individual will be able to locate and revise minor changes in circumstances that still have the ability to significantly impact the estate plan.   For example, in a review of the documents one might discover that the address or telephone number of individuals has changed.    This contact information is very important to have up to date in the Powers of Attorney if an emergency situation has occurred where the first course of action will be to attempt to contact the individual by telephone.

In order to facilitate this once-a-year review, I recommend picking a date that is easier to remember as “review the estate plan” day.   For example, some clients pick a non-major holiday or date (such as, St. Patrick’s Day, April Fool’s Day, or Flag Day) to help them to remember to review their estate plan documents.

Whether a major or minor change to an estate plan, the amendment process is typically far simpler than establishing the estate plan.  My firm is certainly willing to assist you.   For my clients, they often contact my firm by e-mail or telephone, we work though the revisions that need to occur, and they only come to the office once to sign the documents.   Most revisions are then placed with the current estate plan or replace the out-of-date document.

As mentioned above, the “only constant in life is change.”   Make certain that your estate plan evolves as your life does.

© 2017 Matthew W. Harrison and Harrison Law, PLLC All Rights Reserved

This website and article have been prepared by Harrison Law, PLLC for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.