Finally Writing a Will

Here’s a journalist’s take on getting (his long put off) estate planning documents in place:

What it was Like to Finally Write My Will, by John Schwartz.

And here’s Mr. Schwartz’s “To Do” list from this piece.  Of course, I recommend always having a lawyer prepare your documents!

“Get a will. Really. Dying without one — “intestate” — is a drag for everyone.

Get a lawyer. Unless your life is wonderfully uncomplicated, you’ll want the help of an adviser. Even if you do it yourself, have an attorney look over your work.

Decide on your beneficiaries, and make sure your insurance policies and other investments are in agreement with what your will says.

Name an executor. It’s a tough and thankless job, so get someone with good judgment; this person can be paid out of your estate.

Got young kids? Name a guardian. If not, the courts will appoint one; why not take care of this essential matter ahead of time?

Secure your paperwork. Once the documents are done, put them in a safe place and make sure your relatives know how to find it.

Revisit it every five years. The world changes; your will should, too.”

This is a great starting list, but I also add:

Get Advanced Directives.  Have decision makers in place in the event of incapacity.

Put a Trust in Place for Minors.  Make sure you protect your children’s inheritance until they are at mature ages.

Joan Rivers and End of Life Planning

Fellow legal bloggers Danielle and Andy Mayoras (find them here and here) have a great article today about end-of-life lessons to be learned from Joan River’s passing.  All estate plans should include planning for incapacity and end-of-life decision making.  The Mayoras’ article excellently explains why this is so important.

As they explain:  “Too many people think that estate planning is all about wills and trusts.  Far from it, end of life planning is often more important.  In fact, every adult over the age of 18 needs to have some type of advance directive in place.”   The consequences of not having such documents and place, can include a public and invasive guardianship proceedings through the courts, in order for the family to be legally appointed the decision makers.  In the case of facing an end of life decision, such as in Joan Rivers’ example, this process could be particularly painful and compound the grieving process of the family forced to make such decisions.  (Can you imagine the pain of having to go to court to obtain a guardianship while your loved one is near life’s end?)  Further, as the Mayoras explain, the guardianship process “can set the stage for a nasty family fight if people disagree on termination of life support (Terri Schiavo being a prominent example), or even a complete refusal to allow the life support to end, if the patient’s wishes were never reflected in writing.”

Bottom line: incapacity planning, including appointing a decisionmaker and stating your end-of-life wishes through a Living Will, are essential to any solid estate plan.  Such planning is an invaluable gift to yourself and your loved ones.

What Can Celebrity Deaths Teach Us?

High profile celebrity deaths are regularly in the headlines. The ongoing legal battle faced by Anna Nicole Smith, and now her Estate, continues.  That case included allegations of interference with inheritance.  Casey Kasem‘s last months raise questions about guardianship, elder abuse, fiduciary roles, and end of life decision making.  Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s estate plan, lacking in planning for the Federal Estate Tax and failing to include a child born after the his Will was executed, was largely seen as incomplete protection for his family.  Similarly, James Gandolfini’s Will was panned.  As one commentator summarized, “the most common tag-line is that his will is a tax disaster.”   In contrast, Robin Williams’ estate plan, is viewed by some as an example of a solid planning.

These estates serve as reminders for all of us to revisit our estate plans.  Key among the lessons are that even if you have a plan in place, you need to revisit that plan every couple of years or after a change in life, such as after the birth of a child or a divorce.  Questions to consider:

Do you have an estate plan?  Do you have a Will?  Could a Trust be a helpful instrument for you?

When is the last time you reviewed your plan?

Are all of your children included in your plan?  Who do you name as their guardians?  Are these still the right people?

Do you have trusts to provide for your children until the are the appropriate ages to handle money?

Do you have incapacity documents in place?  Who have you named to be decisionmakers in the event you are incapacitated?  Are they still the right people?

Could your Estate be subject to Federal Estate Tax?  Do you have a plan in place to minimize potential Federal Estate Tax liability?