Many of you already have estate documents, probably
executed many years ago. You need an estate
attorney to look over your documents every 10 years
or so. Here are a dozen points to review.
1. Do you have a will and powers of attorney for
health care and property? These are part of every
complete estate plan. With health-care power, you
choose an agent to act on your behalf if you
become unable to make your own decisions. With
durable power for property, you select an agent to
act if you are incapacitated and can’t sign a tax
return, make investment decisions, make gifts or
handle other financial matters.
Make sure your health-care power addresses the
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
This governs what medical information doctors can
release to someone other than the patient.
2. Do you need to change any beneficiaries,
executors, trustees, guardians or others named in
your documents? Are all still living? Can someone
you recently found fill a role better?
3. Any updates needed to addendums to your will
that specify who gets what of your personal
property? Often I read wills that mention
addendums for personal property and the
addendums don’t even exist.
4. Did you move to a different state since the
execution of your estate documents? If so, seek
out a local estate attorney to check any legal
differences for planning between your old and new
5. Do you still need your trust documents or can you
decant, which allows you to change some
provisions? Consider this technique of emptying
the contents of an irrevocable trust into another
newly created trust if you are unhappy with your
irrevocable trust. Not all states allow decanting.
You may also want to discuss possibly moving
assets out of a living trust (where a trustee holds
them, a technique sometimes used to avoid
probate) and holding them in the name of an
This discussion will weigh the income tax benefits
of a step-up in cost basis, the original cost of an
asset, versus other reasons to keep the trust.
(“Step up” means that the cost basis of an asset
resets to the fair market value of the security as the
date of the holder’s death - potentially a much
higher value than when they bought the security.)
The higher the cost basis, the less capital gains tax
your heirs pay when they sell the asset.
You may also want to see whether you need an
irrevocable life insurance trust, a device once used
to move assets, typically life insurance, out of a
taxable estate. Now that thresholds are higher -
individuals can leave $5.34 million and married
couples $10.68 million tax-free - you may not need
to move assets.
Also check when your life insurance expires.
Consider how long to keep it if you think you might
outlive the policy.
6. Have your children passed the ages specified in a
children’s trust (in which you designate money for
such specific purposes as education, home down
payments or weddings once the kids reach
stipulated ages)? If your estate documents call for
a trust to give children access to money at certain
ages after you die, you may be able to delete that
language if the kids are older than the specified
7. What happens if one of your kids gets divorced? A
trust can help you protect assets for your child or
8. Do you have heirs with special needs? Don’t
assume typical estate documents help such an
heir. Seek out a financial advisor and attorney who
specialize in this planning.
9. Check beneficiary designations on brokerage
accounts, insurance policies and retirement
accounts. Anybody you don’t want there?
10. If you filled out a brokerage account application (or
any beneficiary designation), understand the firm’s
policy when one beneficiary dies before the others.
If you want the share of the assets to pass by
blood line - to the deceased’s children, for example
- you may need to put in language specifying per
stirpes (distribution of property when a beneficiary
with children dies before the maker of the will).
Otherwise, the remaining listed beneficiaries may
simply divide the assets.
11. Often a parent names a child on a bank account so
the child can access or use the money if the parent
can’t act. Understand that if you name your child
as a joint owner on an account, the money passes
to your child no matter what your will dictates.
The child splitting the money with someone else
constitutes a gift, though one probably not subject
to gift tax now that gifts of less than $5.34 million
aren’t taxed. Still, think carefully so you keep the
12. Do your heirs know where to find all your important
information? Let someone know the password to
the app where you keep all your passwords - you
must remember digital assets now, too.
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