One reason Patricia L. Brown & Associates handles probate, wills, trusts and powers of attorney is so many of our family law and divorce clients do not have these documents. Perhaps the term "estate planning" misleads people who confuse "estates" with mansions. If you own virtually anything of value (automobile, furniture, family photographs and momentos, a bank account, a TV, etc) or have minor children, you need a will and powers of attorney. Otherwise, some anonymous judge will decide who receives the items you value, including perhaps your despised brother-in-law. And if you are injured or ill and cannot make your own health care decisions, who do you want making those decisions? That brother-in-law?
Here are some great guidelines. See an attorney because you cannot afford an mistake here. If you really cannot afford an attorney, go online and do something. Anything is better than nothing.
When Craig Evans Carnick accompanied his wife of 46 years to a medical procedure recently, he got a bit of a surprise when he asked a nurse a question about her care. "She ignored me, then asked my wife if it was all right to talk with me," said Carnick, a financial planner in Colorado Springs, Colo. It was a small hiccup, but also a stark reminder about today's medical information disclosure laws.
And it's not just an issue for spouses. As adult children delay marriage and elderly parents live longer, many people in the so-called sandwich generation are flying blind as they attempt to care for loved ones, experts warn.
In a new survey of 1,000 adults for Caring.com, about 55 percent said their parents have a will or trust document. Nearly a quarter of people 65 and older said they don't know where their elderly parents' estate documents are kept, and 44 percent don't know what's in the documents
"One of the things a lot of people talk about in the forums is when parents pass away without leaving behind legal documents," said Andy Cohen, founder and chief executive of Caring.com. "We saw some horror stories about people having money tied up in court and not being able to pay their parents' final bills and funeral costs."
Even fewer families have health care directives on adult children, experts said."A lot of people think this is just about elderly parents, but it's a big issue for people with adult children away at school or on their own as an unmarried adult," said Carnick, president of Carnick & Kubik Personal Wealth Advisors. "Who's going to speak for them if they get in an accident?"
And it's not just health care issues. With more people renting out vacation homes, they need to consider whether holding the properties in a revocable trust or other asset-protection vehicle makes sense, Carnick said.
"They don't have to be Warren Buffett to have a pretty complex financial life," he said. A small ski condo or side business could be enough to warrant action, he said.
Carnick offered these tips to keep in mind when tackling the job.
Every five: Most people will need to update their wills, trusts, powers of attorney and health care directives about every five years or when a major life event happens. In other words, don't set this and forget it.
Finish the job: If you've had legal documents drawn up, it's important to share the information. Give a copy of your health care directives to your doctor. If you have a trust, your real estate and financial accounts will most likely need to be retitled in that name.
Organize: Attorneys often give clients binders for keeping these documents, with extra pages and folders for detailed financial account information, including passwords. Then the clients lock them in a safe deposit box that no one else can access or the binders get lost in a sea of home clutter. And passwords change frequently enough to make it virtually impossible to stay current. Make sure you keep the documents in an electronic format that can be accessed by your representatives anytime (many services offer online storage of both legal and financial documents and encrypted password data). As for outdated passwords, that shouldn't be a problem if the documents are current, he said, because your representative will be able to request access to the accounts.
Some estate-planning attorneys also recommend putting retirement accounts into trusts, even though they may already contain beneficiary designations, so ask your attorney whether that's right for you.