FAQ Series: When should I review my estate plan?

You’ve gotten your will, your trust, your powers of attorney. You’ve worked with a qualified lawyer, addressed all of your goals and concerns, and you have an estate plan that suits your needs. You take it home, store it in your fireproof/waterproof safe, and walk away. Mission accomplished.
 
What do you do then? Do you review your estate plan? I run into many people- clients and not- who have not revised their wills or powers of attorney for decades. Their appointed agents and executors may have moved, gone into a nursing home, or passed away. Their children are grown and out of the house, the house has been paid off, and they’ve got a lot more money than they did when the kids were little. Their 20-year-old estate plan is still legally binding, but does it really work for their needs?
 
Probably not.
 
So- when is the right time to review your estate plan? How often should you review it? What kind of life events should trigger a review? Many attorneys suggest reviewing your plan every few years. Many firms (including this one) send out so-called “tickler” letters to former clients every 2-3 years, reminding them to come in for a routine review.
 
It’s always a great idea, when you have a big change in your life or just when it’s been a while, to get your estate plan reviewed and updated. You want to ensure that your documents have kept pace with the law and with your current wishes. Every couple of years is a good guideline, and you should also consider a review when you have a major life event, such as:
 
  • you have a child or grandchild
  • you get married
  • you get divorced
  • you have a death in the family, particularly the death of a spouse
  • you move to another state
  • you inherit money or other assets
 
This list doesn’t contain every possible event that should trigger an estate plan review, but you get the idea. And yes, these types of life events can happen pretty often. It seems like a lot of updating, right? Many people express skepticism when I mention that I think estate plan reviews are a good idea every 2-3 years. I have a will, they think, so why do I need to change it?
 
The simple answer is: life changes, and the laws often do not keep up. It’s easy to leave the lawyer’s office feeling that you’ve done your estate plan and can check it off the list, and to forget about it for years at a time. I frequently see clients who have not updated their estate plans for 20 years or more. In that time, their kids have grown up and (hopefully!) their assets have increased. They have probably changed jobs, may have lost one or both parents, and have sometimes moved across state lines. And just as 20 years brings a lot of changes in your life, it also brings a lot of changes in the law.
 
For example, in 2012 Massachusetts replaced its entire probate code. The New Hampshire legislature has made several revisions to the state’s form for a health care power of attorney. And even as the laws change, life changes- these days many people are divorced, may have remarried, may be living with a partner to whom they are not married, may wish to appoint a close friend to make their health care decisions and to leave money or a house to a niece or nephew or stepchild in their will. Family structures have changed and expanded in the past few decades to include close friends, and the laws haven’t changed. Without an updated estate plan designed to address your life, your family, and your wishes, your money and health may not be managed as you’d like if you’re incapacitated, and your assets may go to people you don’t want to have them. 
 
So: find a good attorney. Find someone who will listen to you, find out your goals, and review your current estate plan to see if your wishes and your plan match. Make sure your plan has the language necessary to enforce your wishes. It’s like a checkup for your estate plan. You may not need to do anything, but you may be surprised by how much your life has changed since you last thought about your will. And if that's the case, won't you be glad you checked?

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