By attorney Philip E. Ruben, Special to THELAW.TV
Life is a journey through unmapped territory. Just when we think we know exactly how things will go, a twist in the road leads us to new destinations. Some of the shifts we welcome, some we dread -- but we adjust to every curve as it comes.
In navigating this journey day-to-day, we may forget that many of these changes have significant implications for estate planning. Failing to keep wills and other estate planning documents up-to-date with your current life situation may prevent those you love from enjoying the full benefit of your estate. If you have never prepared a will -- or have left one languishing in a file for years -- now's the time to re-examine your estate planning goals.
Here are a few significant life events that should always trigger an estate planning assessment:
You've welcomed new children to your family: A will is essential to designate guardians for your children and to set parameters for how they will inherit from your estate.
You've gotten married, or divorced: Your will should reflect a new spouse's inheritance rights -- and just as importantly, eliminate an ex-spouse's claim to your estate.
You've had a change in your financial status: If your income or property has increased, the use of revocable trusts and other estate planning strategies will help your estate avoid complicated and time-consuming probate procedures. You may also want to plan for charitable donations that previously would not have been an option.
You've launched a new business or partnership: Your estate plan should encompass your ownership interest in your business, addressing the issues of successorship and buyout options.
You've moved to a new state: Your estate will be governed by the laws of your new state of residence, so the terms of your old will may need adjustment.
Your children or grandchildren have changing needs: You may want to make special provisions for education, medical needs and other conditions that were unknown at the time your children were young.
It's been a long time: It's always a good idea to review priorities every two to three years. You and your family evolve gradually, and you may be surprised to see how your feelings have changed over time.
When you're ready to give your estate plan a second (or third, or fourth) look, meet with your professional advisor for a comprehensive discussion. Be ready to address the tough questions -- who are the people you trust most to care for your children? When will your heirs be ready enough to manage their own finances? How do you want your estate to be divided? Will your children or spouse want to take over your business if you're not around? Your lawyer will need clear answers to these kinds of questions in order to prepare the documents that make your wishes a reality.
Always consult a qualified estate planning attorney when composing or re-writing a will.
The author, Philip E. Ruben, is an attorney in Chicago, Ill.