If you have already prepared a will, then you are ahead of the game. But, how long ago was this document drafted? Do you remember what your exact wishes were when you had it prepared? While many people think that drawing up a will is a one-time task, this isn’t how estate-planning tools should be used. Life is unpredictable, and our relationships and preferences can change over time. If your will was written some years ago, it is crucial to inspect your copy and ensure its contents still reflect your wishes.
4 Reasons Attorneys Encourage Clients to Review their Wills
- Relationships change. Family dynamics and romantic relationships can change considerably over the years. Perhaps your once-favorite niece rarely contacts you anymore or you rekindled a close friendship with a college buddy in recent years. A second marriage may have brought wonderful new people into your life. Maybe one of your beneficiaries has passed away. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren may have been born, who are not listed in your will. If a child or other family member has reached the age of majority (18 in most states), you may wish to consider revising certain bequests or naming them as executors. Although double-checking your estate planning documents probably isn’t at the forefront of your mind in these scenarios, it is recommended that you review your will following significant changes in your family and personal life.
- Assets change. If your estate has experienced a substantial increase or decrease in value, it’s important take a careful look at your estate plan. Are there tax consequences associated with your existing will? Do you want a charity to benefit from your newly acquired wealth? Maybe you bought or sold a major asset, such as a home, or you started a new business. Perhaps you have acquired a new, sentimentally valuable belonging that you know a certain loved one will cherish. Even if the changes to your estate are small, you may wish to change how your assets are dispersed.
- Locations change. If you have moved out of the state where you drafted your will, you should consult an attorney in your new location to determine whether it is still valid. In addition to ensuring your will’s validity, it is crucial to understand how the new state handles probate, property, and estate and inheritance taxes.
- Tax laws change. State and federal tax laws are constantly changing, and you want to be aware of how they may affect you and your beneficiaries. For most people, a will–the cornerstone of estate planning–is sufficient. But, as wealth, assets and circumstances change, more extensive legal strategies may be necessary for efficient tax planning. Do your best to stay informed and consult with an accountant and an attorney who specializes in estate planning.
How to Review Your Will
A good rule of thumb is to review important legal documents every three to five years and on certain milestones in life. If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, now is a good time to begin your initial review. You won’t need a lawyer for this first part. Consider the heirs, guardians, trustees and executors named in your will, and ask yourself these questions:
- Is anyone missing from the document?
- Is someone listed who shouldn’t be any longer?
- Have any of the listed individuals’ circumstances changed since this will was drafted? (For example, is your executor still of sound mind and capable of serving in the role you have designated for them?)
- How do you feel about the way your assets are to be divided?
If questions or adjustments arise, then it is time to make an appointment with your attorney. They will assist you in creating a new signed and witnessed will or drafting a signed and witnessed codicil that is added to the original document. If your will is valid and still represents how you’d like your estate to be handled, enjoy the added peace of mind that comes with confirming your affairs are in order.
Checklist for When to Review Your Will
- Upon birth or adoption of a child, grandchild or other family member
- Following a marriage or divorce
- When someone named in your will passes away
- When children, grandchildren or other heirs reach adulthood
- Upon changes in your executor, guardian, and/or trustee’s circumstances
- When the value of your estate significantly increases or decreases
- Upon starting a business
- Following changes in tax laws
- When you are approaching age 70 1/2 (when you are required to begin taking distributions from your IRA, 401(k) or other qualified plan)
- Following a move to a different state
- Following diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness
Brian A. Raphan is the founder and lead attorney of The Law Offices of Brian A. Raphan in New York, NY. His blog “Elder Law News” covers timely legal issues pertaining to New Yorkers, and he frequently gives pro bono lectures on legal matters affecting the elderly.