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The stock market has been in a free fall, and Americans are experiencing a type of fear that hasn’t been seen since the polio epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s.

During those decades, polio outbreaks in the U.S. crippled more than 35,000 people yearly, on average. Parents were afraid to let their children go outside, travel and commerce were restricted, and homes and towns where polio cases were found needed to be quarantined. Similar fears are resurfacing for many people now, and estate planning attorneys are being asked many questions.

“Suddenly business owners — from mom and pop shops to CEOs of large corporations — are meeting with estate planning lawyers like no other time than I can recall,” says Bakersfield, California, estate lawyer Patrick Jennison. “Appointment books are getting filled.”

Creating an estate plan is an important and challenging decision for all families. Often, one of the biggest initial obstacles is discussing your own death or the death of a family member. Estate planning is complex and very emotional. Therefore, it’s helpful to understand basics of the estate planning process before approaching a professional.

There are a number of life events that are important times to create or update an estate plan for your family or business. While the timing is different for every person, one should consider what could happen in the event of a substantial life change. These life events include:

  • Getting married.

It was recently National Love Your Pet Day, and although you might think of your pet as family, under the law, pets are regarded as property – so although you can’t leave them money in your will, there are other ways you can make sure they are protected in the event of your passing.

You may have heard stories of people who left their entire fortune to their dog, but that isn’t exactly how it works. You can leave all your money to ensure your pet will be taken care of after your death, but it needs to be done in a certain way.

Because pets are considered property, you won’t be able to name them as a normal benefactor in your will, says Peter Elikann, Boston 25 legal analyst.

Let’s say a married couple indicates in their estate plan that on the first of their deaths, the predeceasing spouse’s assets will be held in a trust. During the surviving spouse’s lifetime, they are the beneficiary and trustee of the trust, and once the surviving spouse passes away, the remaining trust assets will then be passed along to the couple’s children. Under prior Illinois law, the surviving spouse was not required to give notice or accounting to the children during that spouse’s lifetime. Many surviving spouses would have responded to the children’s questions about the trust with something along the lines of, “It’s none of your business.” However, on Jan. 1, 2020, that changed.

The Illinois Trust Code

Beginning Jan. 1, 2020, the new Illinois Trust Code (ITC) replaced the previous Illinois Trusts and Trustees Act. Among the changes, the most important involve the rights of remainder beneficiaries to notices and accountings – but it also gives proactive clients new tools to customize trusts and modify or avoid some of the new notice and accounting requirements.

Most people don’t want to think about estate planning because they don’t want to think about their own death. Unfortunately, it’s much worse to not prepare for when you’re gone. Because it can be so hard to think about, people tend to want to rush through it as quickly as possible, doing things such as using an online program and answering a few questions and then calling it done. Unless you have a very simple estate and maybe just a single beneficiary, it’s best to not take the path of least resistance. The reality is that estate planning often becomes complicated. There are a lot of things to consider in your estate plan – here is a list of many that might apply to you:

1. The documents that you need

A. Starting with the basics, you need a will to help pass along your belongings and nonretirement assets. Retirement accounts and life insurance both have named beneficiaries and don’t go through your will, so if you change your will, it does not change these beneficiaries on retirement and insurance policies.

The elimination of the Stretch IRA as part of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (Secure) Act is going to create big changes for wealth advisors, estate planners, and parents planning to leave behind savings in individual retirement accounts for their kids.

“For a lot of people, the bulk of their wealth has been established in their IRAs,” said Michael Repak, vice president and senior estate planner with Janney Montgomery Scott.

The Secure Act is the most comprehensive retirement bill to pass in a decade and a half, and much of it is designed to stimulate more and better options in the workplace defined contribution market.

An important new federal law went into effect January 1, 2020 called the SECURE Act (Setting Every Community Up For Retirement Enhancement). This law will change retirement savings and estate planning options for many people. Here are a few of the changes this act puts into place that may have the greatest impact on you and your estate plan.

The SECURE Act raises the age at which individuals must begin taking required minimum distributions from their IRA, 401K, 403B, and other qualified funds from age 70 ½ up to age 72 (an exception being if you turned 70 ½ prior to Dec. 31, 2019, in which case the new rule does not apply to you and you will need to start taking distributions by April 2020 or face penalties). The new law also does away with the 70 ½ age cap on contributing to an IRA. Now you can contribute income to an IRA no matter your age.

The most significant impact the SECURE Act has on estate planning concerns the IRA Stretchout. Before this act, individuals who did not need their IRA money could pass the IRA to non-spouse beneficiaries who could then “stretch out” withdrawals based on their life expectancies. Clients could use this to create a lifetime income stream for their children. However, this can no longer be done under the new law. Instead, non-spouse beneficiaries have to withdraw all funds from an inherited qualified plan within 10 years of the death of the original owner (although there are a few exceptions, such as if the non-spouse beneficiary is disabled.) There doesn’t need to be a set withdrawal schedule – the account just has to be depleted within 10 years. Those most impacted by the income tax consequences will be non-spouse beneficiaries in their peak earning years.

Maggie Kirchhoff, a certified financial planner with Business & Personal Finance in Denver, has been with her partner, Matt, for 13 years. The two do not plan to ever get married, and they know this means they won’t get the same automatic rights and protections that those who are legally married get, especially when it comes to death.

“A lot of spousal rights are inherent with a marriage certificate,” says Kirchhoff. “For unmarried couples, though, you have to make a concerted effort to cover all your bases.”

The number of unmarried couples who live together was at 18 million in 2016, up 29% from 14 million in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. Among those age 50 and older, this increase was 75%: About 4 million were cohabiting in 2016, up from 2.3 million in 2007.

For most Americans, estate planning can be complex and daunting. It might seem overwhelming and expensive, and it isn’t easy to confront one’s mortality and make the necessary decisions for it. Nevertheless, it is essential that every American have one important estate planning document: A Health Care Directive.

A health care directive is a legal document which specifies the decisions for caregivers in the event of illness or dementia as well as giving directions for end of life decisions, including how the body should be handled after death. They are sometimes also called living wills, durable health care powers of attorney, or medical directives.

The Impact of Estate Planning

Divorces that occur in farm and ranch families present challenges that are unique and that can impact agricultural operations. The National Agricultural Law Center has published a fact sheet series that explains family law in agriculture and addresses some of these unique challenges.

“Family Law Issues in Agriculture” is a set of fact sheets addressing legal issues for families going through divorce and separation – issues such as child support, spousal maintenance, equitable distribution, and community property. It also covers nuptial agreements, estate planning concerns, and tools for alternative dispute resolution.

This series is written by Cari Rincker, the principal attorney at Rincker Law, PLLC, a nationally recognized practice that focuses on food, farm, and family law. Rincker is a trained mediator and adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and the University of Illinois School of Law.