If you're gathering with your family this holiday season, you may notice that things have changed. Your once-healthy parents may suddenly seem older and more fragile. There may be new spouses, in-laws, children, grandchildren, and stepchildren. And some beloved family members may not be with you anymore.
These changes are a reminder that your estate plan also should change to keep pace with your life and your family. The holidays are a perfect time to take note of your current family situation and start conversations with your relatives about the need to prepare for the future.
Here's an easy checklist of five important questions to ask yourself or your loved ones as you prepare or update an estate plan.
1. What happens if you can't take care of your personal business?
This question hits close to home for anyone whose aging parents struggle to keep up with their checking account. But anything from a bad accident to being away at school can prevent you from managing the financial and legal details of life.
The solution is a durable general power of attorney that names someone to handle your personal business if you are unable to. If you signed a power of attorney several years ago, give it a second look. Make sure the person you named is still able to serve and is still your top choice.
2. What if you can't make your own medical decisions?
A healthcare power of attorney puts someone in charge of making decisions about medical treatment if and when you can't make them yourself. An advance directive or "living will" describes your treatment wishes if you are ill or injured and not expected to recover, and you are unable to communicate those wishes.
These healthcare documents can relieve family stress and avoid having doctors call all the shots. For the power of attorney, choose someone who can communicate with doctors and the rest of the family, and who you trust to do what you would want. If you have already named a healthcare power of attorney and the person you named is no longer right for the job, your documents are due for an update.
3. Do you have a will?
A will ensures your money and property go to the people you choose. Without a will, your assets pass down according to state law, and that means important people such as stepchildren, grandchildren, and longtime romantic partners may get nothing.
A will also can name a guardian for your children. Without a will, state law dictates who will raise them.
If you already have a will, look for these red flags that you may need a new one:
- Birth or adoption of children or grandchildren
- Death of a close family member
4. Do you need a trust?
A trust is like a basket that money and property are put into. There are two main types of trusts: revocable—where you can put things into the trust right away and control the trust while you are alive—and irrevocable.
Some of the most common reasons for establishing a trust include:
- Avoiding the probate process, which is long and expensive in some states
- Planning for long-term care needs
- Restricting access to an inheritance; for example, you may not want your children to inherit money outright until they reach a certain age
- Providing for a family member with special needs
If you have questions about revocable and irrevocable trusts, consult with a legal professional to find out what is best for your needs.
5. Who are the beneficiaries of your accounts and insurance policies?
IRAs, 401(k)s, pensions, investment accounts, and life insurance policies pass directly to the beneficiaries you have named on your accounts, regardless of what your will says.
Find out who your current beneficiaries are and update them if you need to. If you have a trust, make sure the trust is the beneficiary of any assets that are supposed to go into the trust—otherwise you'll defeat the purpose of the trust. You should speak with a tax advisor before changing your beneficiaries to understand any tax consequences of any changes,
Once your estate plan is in order, make sure family members know where your estate planning and financial documents are and what's in them. A good estate plan—plus good, ongoing communication—helps things go as smoothly as possible at a difficult time.
If you need to create new estate planning documents or replace existing documents, LegalZoom can help. Making wills, trusts, and powers of attorney through LegalZoom is fast and affordable. Get started by answering a few questions.