Updating your estate plan isn't something you think about too often. Why should it be? You're happy, healthy, and you have a good life. Letting the negative "what ifs" creep in only puts a damper on your day.
As painful as it is to consider, estate plans are critical. If anything happens to you, it's important to know your loved ones are taken care of and your wishes are honored. Throughout life, those last wishes change with the major events you go through.
Here are nine of the biggest life changing events that signal when you need to update your estate plan.
Did you know your spouse may not be the sole beneficiary or heir of your estate? Depending on the state where you live at the time of your death, who is entitled to benefit from your estate after your death is up in the air without a solid estate plan. For example, stepchildren do not inherit from step parents by default -- in most, states they have to be specifically named in an estate plan.
To ensure your spouse, or anyone else gets particular belongings from your estate, you must outline it in your plan. Whenever you get married, take a look through the dispositive provisions of your estate plan and make any necessary adjustments.
Generally, a marriage license does not mean your new spouse will receive your entire estate after your death. Instead, the laws of most states provide that your new spouse will share in your estate assets in conjunction with your children from a previous marriage unless you change this default through a will, living trust, or other estate planning vehicle.
If you get remarried, it's important that you update your estate plan to include your spouse and his or her stepchildren, if any.
Once a divorce decree has been entered by a court, the laws of many states automatically disinherit a former spouse. Still, if you included provisions in your estate plan that give specific property to your former spouse by name, you may need to change your plan in order to disinherit him or her going forward.
4. The Birth of a Child
Congratulations! Your life has forever changed by welcoming a little bundle of joy into the world. This change is worthy of updating your estate plan to protect your child or children.
Updating your estate plan after the birth of a child goes way beyond your assets. The first order of business in an estate plan is to nominate guardians to care for your children in case something happens to you. If you don't, you could risk having your children cared for by guardians you didn't approve.
If you adopted a child, the same rules apply. You will need to designate a guardian to care for your child as well.
5. The Death of a Beneficiary
The death of a loved one is one of the hardest things you'll ever experience. Chances are, updating your estate plan is far from your mind. Still, it's an important step that must not be forgotten.
If your beneficiary dies, you will need to ensure your estate plan does what you want. For example, if your beneficiary had children and you want his or her portion to go to the children, you oftentimes must specify that. Instead of declaring that basis for the allocations of your property is "per capita", often times you must specify that the basis for allocation should be "per stirpes,".
6. Illness or Disability
One of the most overlooked aspects of estate planning is illness or disability. Who will care for you if you become incapacitated? There are many decisions that must be made regarding your care. Articulating your desires before you become ill, disabled, or incapacitated, can save everyone heartache down the road.
On the other hand, what would happen to your estate if you passed away and one of your beneficiaries became incapacitated? Receiving money from your estate could actually harm them instead of help by causing him or her to be ineligible for needs-based government care programs.
Plan for both of these by updating your estate plan before you become incapacitated or in the event your loved one becomes disabled or ill.
7. A Substantial Increase in Assets or Income
Did you get a significant increase in pay? Did you buy a new home worth significantly more than your previous home? Having more money or assets is a positive thing until you and your beneficiaries become subject to federal or state estate taxes or to potentially costly estate administration proceedings.
By structuring your estate properly, you could minimize these taxes, keep more money in the your pockets, and avoid a potentially costly estate administration.
8. Moving to Another State
Each state has their own unique set of estate laws. Although many of them are fairly consistent, the small changes are enough to make a difference in how your estate plan is executed when needed.
Upon moving to a new state, have your estate plan reviewed by a lawyer. This way, you'll have confidence that the provisions of your estate plan will have the same effect in your new state.
9. Changes in the Law
The law is constantly fluctuating. Both federal estate tax laws and the trust and probate laws of states change on a regular basis. In addition, HIPPA requirements are consistently being updated. Whenever this happens, your estate plan is at risk. Check it over to make sure everything is set up the way you want it to be.
The only thing you can expect in life is the unexpected. Planning ahead and keeping your estate plan constantly updated will help you sleep better at night knowing your family is protected if anything ever happens to you.
Steve Cook is an attorney at Cook & Cook in Phoenix, where he advises families about business and estate planning.