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People are often aware of how important it is to have complete and up-to-date estate planning documents but may not realize that where those documents are stored can be just as important and can greatly help (or hurt, if they are not stored properly).

Estate planning documents are to be used in the event of one’s incapacity and at their death. It’s crucial that those named to serve in those documents know that the documents exist, where they are located, and how to access them. The original documents will be of little use if they can’t be located. A beneficiary named in a will may be out of luck if the original will cannot be found, and some states may make this more challenging than others. In Virginia, for example, the law presumes that if an original will cannot be located, the creator of the will destroyed it with the intent that it be revoked. Trying to admit a photocopy of a will to probate can be expensive and time consuming, and this copy may not end up being accepted.

Here are some tips for proper storage of estate planning documents:

As is the case with many questions regarding legal matters, this depends on some different factors. It is more simple to name your spouse directly, and your spouse could then convert your retirement plans to their IRA and take withdrawals on their schedule.

That being said, trusts have a number of advantages. Trusts can provide a lot of protections, including greater creditor protection compared to retirement funds, protection in the event your spouse becomes incapacitated, protection from scams (as seniors are often targeted), and protection of assets from having to be spent paying for long-term care. They can also preserve funds that are not needed by your spouse for your children.

Trusts can also be a useful estate planning tool. As the threshold is just over $12 million, most Americans don’t need to worry about the federal estate tax. However, many states have their own estate taxes, including some with the threshold as low as $1 million. A trust can protect this amount from being taxed following the death of the survivor of yourself and your spouse.

In last week’s post, I addressed why it is important to talk to your parents about planning for their death as well as some tips for how to begin this challenging conversation with them. Today I’ll share the “what” and “when” of this important conversation:

What should be covered?

There are a number of documents you’ll want to ask your parents about. Start by asking them if they have a power of attorney for finances which names an individual to make money decisions for them when they become unable to make these decisions themselves. You’ll also want to ask if they have similar documents for health care, including an advanced care directive, health care proxy, or power of attorney for health care. Also see if they have a living will to outline their wishes for end-of-life care.

If you’ve lost a parent, you’ve felt the devastating reality that everyone – including everyone’s parents – will one day pass away. Often, their children are the ones who have to handle financial responsibilities while handling their own grief. Planning in advance for the tasks that will need to be done can make that difficult time a little easier.

“We surely ought to have some idea of what we’re facing,” says Melanie Cullen, San Francisco Bay Area-based author of “Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To.” She continues, “On the other side of it, our parents need to know we’re interested, we care, we’re there to help.”

This week I’ll address why it’s important to have this conversation and how to bring up this topic with your parents:

Do you own real property in multiple states? Perhaps you are a snowbird or own investment properties such as rentals in more than one state. If you do, your estate will likely be required to go through probate in each state where you own real property at the time of your death. Probate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is often very time consuming and can quickly become expensive with court costs and lawyer’s fees. In cases where real property is owned in multiple states, that would mean going through probates in each of those states.

However, there are a number of methods that can be used to try to avoid probate:

One method is to add the intended heirs to the title of the real estate while the primary owners are still alive. However, this is not often advised. If any of the intended heirs (who then become co-owners of the real estate) get into financial trouble – such as bankruptcy, divorce, being sued, creditor issues, etc. – the primary owners of the real estate also become involved in their financial trouble. Parents shouldn’t lose their home or other properties because their child was sued by another person.

Estate planning for most families typically involves more than simply naming beneficiaries. The goals of estate planning often include the transfer of assets in an orderly and tax-efficient manner as well as working to preserve wealth across generations.

The transition of wealth from one generation to the next is often most successful when there is a shared understanding of the use of the family wealth. Those family members who have created the wealth get to decide how their assets are to be distributed, but understanding and agreement from the rest of the family on how assets are to be used can help preserve wealth as it moves from one generation to another.

Reaching an agreement between family members when it comes to estate planning can be especially challenging as different people often bring different ideas and values to the table.

Last week I wrote about taking the opportunity with the changing of the seasons to begin or revisit your estate plan along with questions to guide this process. Another key component to be aware of while creating or changing your estate plan is significant changes in tax law. Here are a few to keep in mind:

Beginning in 2018, federal gift and estate tax exemptions were changed significantly. These exemptions are scheduled to be drastically reduced on January 1, 2026, but this change may occur even earlier.

Also, under the current law, income tax deferral opportunities in relation to inherited retirement accounts have been limited.

Spring has arrived, and many people feel a new sense of initiative and renewal during this season.

Although the resolutions you set with the New Year may no longer be in the forefront of your mind, the spring season is an excellent time to channel renewed focus and energy into improvements for yourself and your family. So many things are now on our minds but outside of our control, including current economic uncertainty, international conflict, political divides, and continued public health challenges. One thing we can do is focus our time on important matters that are within our control. Many people have taken this time to begin or update estate plans in order to best prepare for the inevitabilities of incapacity and death.

Here are several questions to consider while planning for or updating your legal estate planning documentation:

As part of an estate plan, sports fans who have season tickets might wish to pass these tickets on to family members or loved ones to enjoy. Unfortunately, passing on these tickets might be less simple than you would expect.

Acquiring season tickets to your favorite sport can be challenging to begin with. These tickets might be very expensive and may have a waitlist. It’s understandable to want family members or friends to be able to use these tickets after you have passed away, but most teams have limits for how you can transfer tickets while still alive or after death.

As a season ticket is a contract between the purchaser and the team, the team is able to put restrictions in this contract. Limits can be set on when and how the tickets can be transferred to another person. A team may state that the tickets cannot be transferred by will or trust, may only allow transfers to one’s spouse or close family members, or may require ticket holders to follow certain procedures to transfer the tickets.

One of the lessons the last few years have taught us is that we may miss out on the chance to do something if we put it off for too long. A number of people are making big life decisions such as switching jobs, moving into new homes, or making relationship changes.

Many people have also taken this time to begin estate planning. However, some people have been unable to stay focused and trail off instead of finalizing their estate plan. People may do this for a variety of reasons. They may feel too overwhelmed by the decisions they need to make, or they may not have someone in their life that they are comfortable naming to make important decisions for them. It’s also unnerving for most people to think about their own mortality. For all of us, it’s a matter of “when” and not “if” we will die, and it’s better to be prepared for it.

An estate planner helps to simplify this process and break down complex issues to make them much easier to understand. Although an estate planner can listen to clients’ concerns and offer guidance, it’s still up to the individual to decide to execute their own estate planning documents.