By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
Postponing the creation of a Last Will and Testament is all too common in America. A recent Gallup Poll reported that only 46 percent of adults had created a Will. But the existence of a Will is a critical step in protecting loved ones and avoiding conflict in the event of an untimely death.
When Does a Will Become Useful?
When people move in together, get married, purchase vehicles, buy a house or even own a pet, a Last Will and Testament helps loved ones know what to do. A legal document saves them time, worry, and even court fees.
Many parents in Pennsylvania think that the law automatically provides straightforward answers to the transfer of property and guardianship of children, making a Will unnecessary. Others feel that Wills and Trusts are something only wealthy people need to create. They think Estate Plans are just for people with extensive landholdings.
However, anyone with dependents should have a Will in place. Anyone with personal property, including furniture, vehicles, or sentimental items, should think about transferring property after death.
What are Wills?
Wills are simply legal documents that spell out the deceased’s wishes as to what to do with his or her assets after death and who should assume guardianship of children, dependents, and even pets. Creating a thoughtful and legally sound may reduce family conflict, protect dependents, and ensure that passing does not trigger unnecessary stress or conflict.
What are Trusts?
Trusts are legal documents that manage the distributions of funds, including 401(k)s, pensions, or life insurance policies. They are beneficial for families with children under 18 or with special needs dependents. Trusts can protect against the mismanagement of an inheritance, specify how funds can be used, distribute parts of a legacy as the heir reaches certain ages or milestones, and provide timed income or stipends for guardians.
What is Estate Planning?
Estate Planning is creating a plan for distribution of assets and appointments of guardians after death, creating trusts if necessary, appointing agents while one is alive but unable to take care of things for his or herself, and making end-of-life decisions so that loved ones are not burdened with that decision.
What Happens When Families Don’t Have Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning in Place?
Creating legal documents that specify the distribution of assets and care of dependents is especially important for families with children under the age of 18 or families with adult dependents.
Many people assume that their children can live with the guardians they choose. They may even discuss guardianship with their friends and family. However, the state declares the estate intestate if there is no Will in place. The courts usually reassign guardianship and assets to next of kin. Assets can include bank accounts, investments, real estate, retirement accounts, and personal possessions like vehicles, pets, and home items. Laws of secession vary depending on marital status, but a spouse, child, parents, siblings, aunts or uncles, cousins, or even distant relatives could inherit assets if a person passes without a Will.
The appointment of guardians for underage or special needs dependents is left to the Court in cases where one passes without a Will. Often those guardians are next of kin but they may not be who would have been selected by the legal guardian while alive. In some circumstances, if the arrangements are disputed or accusations are made against potential guardians, the court may remand the children to foster care or special needs individuals to institutional care until the guardianship is resolved.
Finally, administering an estate without the help of a Will usually results in additional court costs. The cost of probating an estate without a Will not only reduces the size of inheritance but can also significantly increase the stress of settling affairs.
How to Create Guidelines for Guardians
When a parent assigns the role of guardian, it’s essential to specify the guidelines for that guardianship in a Will. Caregivers have different ideas on how to manage the finances of a dependent. When an inheritance is involved, the parent should spell out what share can be used for the child’s care, which portion should be set aside, and which percentage should compensate a guardian for their duties.
It may be wise to assign a trustee to ensure the Trust is being distributed correctly.
Why Lancaster County Families Need to Update Estate Plans Regularly
In an ideal world, parents should have an estate plan in place before a child is born. Therefore, it’s wise to review the Will and Estate Plan every year and factor in changes such as additional children, changes of address, buying or selling property, retirement funds, life insurance policies, divorces, remarriages, changes in the lives of guardians, and other life changes.
Remember that years, even decades, can pass between the writing of a Will and its administration after death. Over the years, beneficiaries, young or aged, may pass on. To reduce litigation after passing, include in your Will a succession of heirs.
For example, if a sister passes, a Will may dictate that her children inherit. In another instance, if a grown child dies, it may indicate that the inheritance passes to their children or a sibling.
How to Ensure Care for Special Needs Dependents
Wills and Trusts are especially important for families with special needs children or adults. These families must choose a guardian who is not only able to care for a child into adulthood but also lives close to any resources the dependent may require.
A well-considered estate plan can also construct ways for a special needs heir to get financial support without jeopardizing federal aid such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid benefits.
A Special Needs Trust can hold bequests and assets. In this situation, a trustee spends the money on the dependent’s behalf for anything from personal care to entertainment or trips. Because the money goes to a trust instead of an individual, the inheritance doesn’t affect other benefits.
Talk to an Estate Planning Attorney Today
Creating a sound Will and Estate Plan is an effective way to protect the welfare of dependents and reduce the stress and expense for heirs. Going and Plank can help create an Estate Plan scaled to meet your needs.
Contact us today if you’d like to find out more about how the attorneys at The Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster can help you create, review, revise, or administer Wills, Trusts, and estates.
The Law Offices of Going and Plank are proud to participate in the Met Life Legal Plan.
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