Life changes daily, it seems sometimes. Often, when those events take place that bring such change, we can be so focused on the change in circumstance, it’s easy to overlook how our estate plan might need to change too. Here are five key times to evaluate your estate plan.
1. Evaluate your estate plan if you have no estate plan.
For those who have never developed an estate plan, you should. Almost everyone needs to do some sort of planning, even if that planning involves meeting with an attorney only to develop your healthcare documents and understand what happens if you don’t have a will. Florida law states what happens to your belongings if you die without a will, but it is often much more complicated for those you leave behind. A small amount of time with an attorney today can save your loved ones hassle down the road.
2. Evaluate your estate plan when you get married.
If you already have a will before you marry, Florida law tries to help, perhaps assuming you were so caught up in newlywed bliss that you just forgot to update your will. By state law, the new spouse will inherit something even if the one with the will—the will that does not include the new spouse—dies first, even though the new spouse is never mentioned in the will. This might be what you want. Or it might not. Often, though, the one-size-fits-all-guess by the legislature cannot possibly take into account your personal situation, especially if children are involved. An attorney can help make sure that your will reflects your wishes.
3. Evaluate your estate plan when you have children.
When you have children, it seems as though everything changes. This includes what happens (by state law) to your property when you die. And again, even if you had a will before your child was born, Florida law tries to step in and include that child in your estate plan. But again, this could lead to confusion and difficulties, especially when you have children with different needs or different parents. As important is the issue of who will manage any inheritance your minor child receives. If you want a say in that decision, you need to develop your own estate plan. So between the midnight feedings and changing diapers and reveling in this new bundle of joy, set aside a little time to protect that precious peanut’s future. In doing so, at least there is something you can still control, even if not the amount of spit-up you’re dealing with these days.
4. Evaluate your estate plan when your children enter adulthood.
So you had a will, and you updated things after you married, and after you had children. So far, so good. But once those children become adults, life again changes. As you’ve watched this child grow and mature, perhaps you’ve made different decisions about protecting the child’s inheritance to make sure it is available for college. Or to help with a new home. Or to be kept away from a bad debt decision. Or from a less-than-stellar choice for a (short-term) spouse. As your children become adults, it is good to again evaluate your plan and make sure you are protecting their future.
5. Evaluate your estate plan if you divorce.
Life changes in other ways than just adding to your family; sometimes our families become smaller and marriages end. Florida law steps in again (unless the will says otherwise). In this situation, if you have a will and your ex is in it, if you die before updating your will, the law acts like your ex died first. Thus, the ex gets nothing. (Nothing from your will; all divorcing spouses should consult with a family law attorney for what happens during the divorce proceedings.) This might suit you well, but this can create more of a mess than you wanted. Probate will almost certainly be more complicated. And many spouses actually part on good terms; if they had children together, they might want some provisions in the will to stay. By updating your estate plan, you can be more certain your actual wishes are in place.
There are many good reasons to sit down with an attorney and evaluate your estate plan. The above covers five of those key times when life events prompt such a need. If you’re just getting started, experiencing one of those life events, or if some other situation in your life has changed, call an estate planning attorney.
Bonus: Almost all of the above situations are covered by Florida statutes, which provide provisions by the legislature that try to guess what you would have wanted, even without a will or with a will written before the life event took place. But not all situations when you need a good plan are covered. For example, when two adults decide to live together without marrying, no one is protected or provided for. I’ll cover that situation in June.