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By CK Wilde for 3GenFamily Blog
Is your family like most others? Have your parents (or you) done some estate planning (see below for resources) and then filed the documents away to gather dust and cobwebs until they are needed?
Why do I ask? Because if an illness or accident suddenly happened, you just might discover that those documents are out of date and don’t do the job they were supposed to do!
In spite of the changes that my Dad made in recent years to his documents, he didn’t update all of them. Now as his executrix, I am discovering that some of the documents don’t do what he and my mom originally wanted.
As you may know from my previous posts, my father was frugal beyond belief. He never understood why attorneys got paid so much and tried to avoid using them whenever he could. But, he didn’t totally ignore estate planning.
Urged on by my mother, he got the requisite documents done. And, life events (my mom’s death, remarriage, divorce) forced him to update his will, financial power of attorney and medical power of attorney several times.
But, he never got help with the total picture. So now, I’m looking at estate taxes that wouldn’t have to be paid if Dad had just gotten someone to review his entire estate periodically.
No, not Federal Estate tax. Congress changed the law to increase the amount that is exempt from tax. I’m dealing with NJ Estate tax.
You see, when Congress changed the the federal tax, it threw the states into a tizzy at the prospect of losing desperately needed tax revenue. Every state has dealt with it differently. NJ did something unique — kept the tax rules that were in effect in 2001.
So what should my Dad have done?
Sit down every few years and double check that all of these estate planning documents still met his needs. And, he really should have had an attorney look at them.
What documents am I talking about?
1. Your will – Everyone should have one even if you think you don’t have many assets. The laws of Intestacy (dying without a will) in your state will dictate how your property should be distributed. But, it may not be the way you would want it. Why chance it?
2. Name beneficiaries for all bank accounts, IRAs and securities — The accounts will go to the person you name rather than into your estate and may save grief later. My father had several accounts that did not have beneficiary designations. Bank employees seem to be totally clueless about this.
3. Buy life insurance if people depend on you for support — Keeping small policies in force for elderly parents could help pay the funeral and other expenses if they are paid up policies. Accident policies are a waste of money for most seniors because the majority of our elders die from medical problems, not accidents. My father had 3 accident policies that were worthless.
4. Make out a Living Will or medical power of attorney — I discussed the importance of this in my previous post about getting a Living Will.
5. Make a financial power of attorney — When my father was rushed to the hospital and bounced in and out of rehab for 3 months, I was able to step in to pay his bills and handle his affairs because the power of attorney was in place. It’s a good idea to talk with your parent about bills and taxes before a crisis happens. Know what’s due when and where the banking records are.
6. Plan for children with special needs — Along with the will, you may need other arrangements to care for a special needs child. Don’t assume that the executor will know what you intended. Few of us read minds very well. Siblings don’t always get along. Spell it out.
7. Let your executor know where everything is located — Whether you use a specially designed estate planning organizer or just a spiral bound notebook, mark down where all of the documents are. Organize and label them. Write down the names and addresses of your attorney, accountant, banks and other key contacts. Document everything that is pertinent to your finances and life.
Here are a few resources to help
Wills and Estate Planning Information at NOLO.com
“Get Organized Now” on the Nolo Press website
Find an attorney who specializes in Elder Law
Estate Planning 101 from FindLaw.com
Don’t put off asking your parents about this. You aren’t prying. You are helping them achieve their final wishes.
Do be respectful if you are not designated to handle their affairs. Circumstances change. Your aging parents may need your help in the future if the other person can’t be there. You want to remain on good terms with your family.
Most important, toss away the urge to daydream happily about your future inheritance. If you are in charge of the estate, your elders come first. You may need to make decisions to spend that money for home health care, assisted living or a nursing home. Your focus must remain on doing your utmost to meet your parents’ needs.
After it’s all over, you’ll be very glad you did. (more about the tough decisions I faced in the next post)