If you’ve ever found yourself asking the above, we’ve found the root problem. After all, estate planning is not just a task for the elderly or the dying. Despite common misconceptions, an estate plan is not an end of life plan or something you prepare in old age. Rather, it is an ever-evolving document that grows alongside your family and your assets.
Every adult, regardless of their station, should have an estate plan. As soon as a child comes of age (18 in most states), parents lose their legal right to intervene in financial, medical, and education affairs unless proper power of attorney and advance directive documents are in place. This is where the process begins. As a person advances through life’s many stages, their estate plan tends to grow, gaining new provisions that reflect such events as marriage, parenthood, new relationships, and grandchildren. At some unpredictable point, be it due to death or severe injury, the plan is activated, ensuring affairs are ordered in the most loving and efficient way possible.
The answer to the title question, then, is that without an estate plan, you could amble through life unprepared and inevitably at some point possibly cause your loved ones unnecessary strife.
But let’s get more specific.
If you die intestate, or without so much as a last will & testament, the state intervenes in distributing your property. Laws vary, but generally, this means probate court will assign a personal representative or executor as well as guardian to any minor children. Your assets will likely go to your living spouse, children, or extended family and they will be distributed all at once. In the best-case scenario, your loved ones could suffer unnecessary tax deductions and a hefty legal bill. In the worst-case, hordes of illegitimate heirs could come out of the woodwork, legitimate family members might end up embroiled in lengthy legal disputes, millions could be lost to taxes and fees, and the proceedings may remain unresolved for more than four years after your death. Sound insane? It happened to Prince.
It’s not just celebrities who need to worry about ugly disputes following their passing, however. Even a modest estate can provoke lasting tragedy or family conflict when unaccounted for by a plan. Forbes, for instance, reported on a person who died before ever filing the paperwork ensuring her assets would pass to her life partner. The person’s sibling and parents had passed away and so the remaining wealth went to next-of-kin: nieces and nephews scattered across the country. Imagine the pain of her unmarried but life-long partner needing to uproot and move as she was unable to buy out the house in which the two had lived.
Naturally, such stories are unlikely but then so too was a global pandemic that would plunge the economy into disarray and threaten the lives of, well, every single one of us. The point here is not to be inflammatory but simply to point out that not having any sort of estate planning document on file, no matter your age, is foolish at best and in certain situations downright reckless.
Despite this, less than a third of US adults have an estate plan of any kind, and studies show this number dropping. Don’t join the trend. An experienced estate planning attorney will happily help you begin the process of planning your estate plan and will support you in keeping it updated through to the end of your days, whenever that may come. While the thought of diving in may be overwhelming, the planning process is not and, to be blunt, it’s simply one of those things you just need to do.
Contact Attorney James M. Miskell