Law Office of Richard M. Russell
197 Palmer Avenue
Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540

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Understanding Estate Planning

An estate plan is, in its simplest form, an instruction as to how your property should be distributed upon your passing. 

If you are thinking about planning your estate, what are the important considerations:

Understand the Consequences of not Making an Estate Plan: You should understand what will happen if you fail to make an estate plan. If you make no plan, your property will be distributed according to the law that provides for the distribution of property when one dies without having planned his or her affairs. Sometimes what the law provides is consistent with the property owner’s wishes and sometimes not. One with property should at least learn what will become of his or her property if he or she dies without planning. Even if the law is consistent with an owner’s wishes, it might nevertheless be appropriate to plan--so that recipients of property know that was the owner’s intent--rather than just the outcome of the applicable law, and perhaps to address potential future changes in the law.

Preparing Your Estate Plan Yourself: Writing your own estate plan is fraught with the possibility of error, even if you rely on how-to information. Legal information is often misunderstood by non-lawyers (and frequently by lawyers). Anything beyond the most basic estate plan is likely to be misunderstood and even a basic estate plan is probably more complicated than it appears. Essentially, if you make your own plan, it is likely that you don’t know what you have planned, and you may be leaving your survivors with more problems than if you did nothing. Relying on an on-line service is equally risky, as these documents use the same language to address many, varied circumstances, rather than tailoring language to an owner's circumstances. Here’s a rule: if you are working without an attorney and you do not understand every word of the documents you use and the precise consequences of the words you have chosen, you really are in the dark about what will follow your passing.

Plan for Incapacity: People are living longer and older people are more susceptible to suffering diminished faculties or debilitating events. At some point you may become unable to attend to your affairs--in which case you become vulnerable. While the primary focus of an estate plan is to address what is to occur upon your passing, a well done estate plan will seek to protect your wealth during lifetime, should your circumstances decline.

Provide for Minor Children: An estate plan can nominate others to care for your children after your passing. Importantly, you can provide financial management of property beyond the age of majority (usually 18), to protect young, inexperienced adults from acting inappropriately with inherited wealth.

Check Your Beneficiary Designations: If you have assets with beneficiary designations--usually retirement assets or life insurance--these assets will be paid to the beneficiary--and not subject to your estate plan. You should review beneficiary designations periodically, to make sure they continue to express your wishes. 

Review Your Estate Plan: Similar to beneficiary designations, once you prepare an estate plan, you should review the plan periodically, again, to make sure it continues to express your intentions. In addition, an estate plan should be reviewed on major life events, such as births, deaths, divorce, or significant changes in wealth.