The Key Life Events That Demand a Fresh Look at Your Estate Plan
When and why to update your estate planBy Lisa Stickler | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 20, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys John L. Roberts and Michele J. Feinstein
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- The Six Estate Planning Pivot Points
- Create Anew, Don’t Amend
- Avoid Common Estate Plan Pitfalls: Choice of Fiduciary and Handwritten Changes
- Find an Experienced Attorney for Your Estate Planning Needs
It’s a fact of life: Everyone dies eventually. The smartest way to prepare for this inevitability is to create an estate plan. But here’s the catch: The plan you make at 30, 40, or 50 usually isn’t the plan you’ll need at 70. “Generally, it makes sense to review your estate plan every five years,” says Michele Feinstein, an estate planning attorney at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin in Springfield, Massachusetts.
And when should you make changes? “When there is an occurrence that impacts the overall dispositive provisions or plan,” she says, “meaning there’s a reason you don’t want to give something to someone anymore, there’s changes with the law or changes with people in your document.”
Also: when there’s a major life change.
The Six Estate Planning Pivot Points
“There are six main life events that trigger the need to update your will,” says John L. Roberts, estate attorney at his solo firm in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
1. Death of a Fiduciary
The relevant death here is that of “a close family member or other person you have designated in the document,” says Roberts.
The death of a fiduciary—a person named in your last will and testament who will handle your assets after your death—reinforces the need for successors. “If you have designated a fiduciary and that person passes away, you need to have selected a successor to take their place, and so on,” he says.
“While death is guaranteed and disability is not, disability happens with great frequency,” says Feinstein.
When the testator or the will’s beneficiaries or fiduciaries receive a serious diagnosis, updates must be considered.
“Under the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code, [for example], there is a presumption that the former spouse is no longer eligible to serve as a fiduciary or representative,” says Feinstein. “It is critical that you name a secondary representative.”
Adds Roberts: “The divorce, or risk of divorce, of a beneficiary is also relevant.”
“It is best to respond to a decline in your health before you lose the ability to respond at all,” says Roberts. You can appoint a durable power of attorney to make financial and healthcare decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity.
5. New Decade
Changes like marriage or remarriage will affect your plan.
Remarriage can create dramatic ripple effects. “The highest percentage of cases leading to estate disputes involve remarriages that include children from prior relationships,” Feinstein says. “Take care up front and address asset distribution for the children and the new spouse.”
Receiving a substantial inheritance may “knock a beneficiary into the Massachusetts estate tax liability zone,” says Roberts. “It could also knock a person out of being eligible for payment of certain care they may need.”
Other Major Life Events
Other life-changing events can include a new child, which prompts the designation of guardianship and the creation of relevant financial provisions for the new family member. The birth of a grandchild also triggers the need for an update. These are particularly important if the child or grandchild has special needs.
If an asset could disqualify an individual with special needs from receiving payment for assistance programs, a trust is the optimal tool, “rather than having the grandchild [or child] receive the asset outright,” Roberts says.
You may also want to check in on your plan after moving to a different state. “Your old plan will be given full faith and credit, but each state has its quirks,” says Feinstein. “It will still work if you leave $100,000 to someone, but there might be a way to make it more efficient in that new state via bonds or taxes or some other difference.”
Create Anew, Don’t Amend
When these types of events occur, meet with your attorney.
“Ninety percent of the time, you should create a new will [rather than a codicil or amendment],” says Feinstein. “When you administer a will, the last thing you want to see is 15 amendments. It can be like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make sure you got it right.”
“Creating a new document makes it easier for people to carry out the testator’s wishes,” Roberts says.
Avoid Common Estate Plan Pitfalls: Choice of Fiduciary and Handwritten Changes
Roberts emphasizes the importance of choosing fiduciaries who will be sensitive to your wishes and your future physical and mental condition.
Also, “do not make any handwritten changes [to estate planning documents],” says Feinstein. “If handwritten changes are made without witnesses, the whole will can be invalidated.”
“We are all getting older and living longer. That should be a reminder that regular review of these plans is needed,” says Roberts.
Find an Experienced Attorney for Your Estate Planning Needs
Whether you are looking to create an estate plan for the first time or need to update your existing legal documents, consider reaching out to an experienced estate planning attorney for legal advice and guidance through the entire estate planning process.
Additional Estate Planning & Probate articles
- What is Estate Planning Law?
- What Happens if Someone Dies Without an Estate Plan?
- What’s the Difference Between an Estate Plan and a Will?
- What Digital Assets Should I Include in an Estate Plan?
- What Assets Should Be Considered When Planning Your Estate?
- What Is the Role of an Executor in Estate Planning?
- Four Ways To Reduce and Avoid Estate Tax
- How Can a Probate Court Process Be Avoided?
- What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Do?
- What Is a Power of Attorney?
- How to Succeed at Succession
- An Overview on Probate and Estate Administration Law
State Estate Planning & Probate articles
Find top lawyers with confidence
The Super Lawyers patented selection process is peer influenced and research driven, selecting the top 5% of attorneys to the Super Lawyers lists each year. We know lawyers and make it easy to connect with them.Find a lawyer near you