Springfield Estate Planning & Probate Attorneys
Safeguarding and Defending Clients’ Futures
Estate planning or planning for what happens after your death are not necessarily the most pleasant of tasks. However, taking the steps to protect your loved ones (and yourself) after you pass away or become incapacitated is, in some ways, a noble endeavor. You and your family both deserve the peace of mind of knowing a plan is in place for every eventuality, and the last thing you want to do is place additional hardship on them once you are gone.
Many incorrectly believe that a will, or a last will and testament, is the only legal document you need to consider in planning your estate. Estate planning is in fact a much broader discipline, encapsulating documents that can protect your wishes and your loved ones both after you are gone and while you are still alive.
The goal of any robust estate plan is to protect and preserve as much of your estate as possible. When someone or some institution threatens those wishes or believes an individual was unduly influenced, portions of an estate can wind up in probate court. At Hare, Stamm, Harris & O’Connor, LLC, our Springfield estate planning & probate lawyers can assist you in both protecting your wishes through proactive estate planning and ensuring your wishes and those of your loved ones are upheld in probate.
Keeping Your Existing Estate Plan Updated
You are never too old to start planning for your future through an estate plan, but your priorities will inevitably change over time. The estate plan of a young newlywed can and should look different from an aging grandparent preparing to retire! However, many make the mistake of not keeping their estate plan current with their evolving wishes.
You should be evaluating the terms of your estate plan regularly under normal circumstances, but you should almost certainly conduct a thorough review after any major life event. Having a child, getting a divorce, moving to a new state, or losing a loved one are all instances that can have dramatic impacts on your estate plan if left unchecked. Not doing so could create complications for your loved ones down the line; consider the discomfort if you did not update your will to include a second child, for example, and you left most of your property to the only child you had at the time of writing your most current will.
Also consider that certain elements of estate planning may only become relevant to you as you grow older or the circumstances of your life change. You may come into a great deal of money as a result of an investment, for example, or you may want to create a living trust should you decide to have children. As you grow older and reach the end of your life, you might consider advanced planning to prepare your assets for federal estate taxes. The bottom line is your priorities and goals will likely change over the years, and your estate plan should reflect those changes: An estate plan is only as effective as you proactively make it.
Finally, note that state estate planning laws can differ dramatically. If you have recently moved to Massachusetts or are considering moving your primary residence somewhere else, it is critical your estate plan is reviewed to make sure it is optimized and compliant with all state regulations.
Wills and Trusts
A last will and testament, or a will, is a relatively simple document that dictates what happens to your assets once you have passed away. The document should define who you would like to receive your property, appoint a guardian to any minor children, and designate an executor – often your legal representative – to manage the distribution of your estate. The document needs to be signed in the presence of 2 witnesses to be formalized and can be updated fairly easily.
Trusts, meanwhile, can be more complex and have numerous categories. These include living trusts, which place your assets into the trust while you are still alive, with instructions to transfer to beneficiaries once you pass away or under other conditions you define. You can set up trusts for your children, for example, with funds to be used for defined categories, like education.
One of the key benefits of most trusts is the ability to limit or avoid probate court. Wills are matters of public record and face objections from outside parties that feel they are entitled to some portion or element of the deceased’s estate. This can tie up the impacted assets for months or even years as the matter is argued in court, potentially creating new headaches for your already grieving loved ones.
Trusts, however, are private, and are legally structured in such a way that tends to keep them immune from the objections of outside parties. They can also shelter assets from beneficiary creditors and help reduce or even eliminate the impact of federal estate taxes.
The costs of not having a trust or will in place for when you pass away are significant. Remember, the goal of a will or trust is to specify your wishes for what happens to your assets and who takes care of your minor children. If you leave behind no valid will or trust defining those terms, your estate – including the care of your children – will be subject to Massachusetts’s intestate succession laws.
Under intestate succession, the state determines who assumes guardianship of your children and who gets your assets. Generally, assets are split proportionally amongst the closest living relatives, including the spouse, children with that spouse, parents, and siblings, generally in that order of priority. Your minor children will typically be assigned to your most immediate, able relative. Remember that there is no room for sentiment under intestate succession; if you intended to give a special collection to a close friend, for example, but had no will specifying this, the state will not honor your intention.
That is why it is crucial to review and formalize your will or trust with a qualified estate planning attorney. Our legal team at Hare, Stamm, Harris & O’Connor, LLC can help evaluate the details of your estate, listen to your goals and concerns, and make suggestions on how best to enshrine your interests.
Powers of Attorney and Advanced Health Directives
Many associate estate planning with something that primarily deals with what happens to your property after you pass away. While wills and trusts are popular features of many estate plans, there are also powerful tools you can use to protect your interests while you are still alive, including powers of attorney and advanced health directives.
Establishing a power of attorney allows you to designate someone to serve as your legal representative and decisionmaker in the event you become unable to advocate for yourself or make decisions. Two common types of powers of attorney are medical powers of attorney and financial powers of attorney.
A medical power of attorney makes healthcare decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to make decisions about your care. This can apply to situations where you are suddenly injured in an accident or in a scenario where you develop symptoms of dementia as you grow older. In either case, you may not be able to make necessary medical decisions. Without a medical power of attorney, those decisions are typically left to your healthcare professional and possibly a close relative, like your spouse.
A financial power of attorney is an individual you permit to handle some or all your business affairs should you become incapacitated or unable to manage the day-to-day affairs of your estate. You can define what areas of your estate you allow a financial power of attorney to control. For example, you may only want them to pay bills or handle simple inquiries.
Advanced healthcare directives are often part of a “living will” and provide instructions on what courses of action you would like to be taken in the event you are unable to communicate and need medical care. Many will specify what they would like to happen in the event they fell into a permanent coma, for example.
A debilitating accident can happen at any time, and everyone eventually grows old. Taking the time to plan for your future and establish powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be honored, no matter what happens. Our lawyers can make sure your documents are properly formalized and clear in their language.
Despite their best efforts, it is possible that objections could delay the timely administration of your loved one’s estate and tie up their affairs in probate court. This can be especially common when an estate plan has not been thoroughly evaluated by an estate planning attorney or when there are suspicions that the deceased was not of sound mind when they formalized their last will and testament.
If someone is erroneously attempting to claim entitlement to assets left to you by your loved one, or you feel a loved one’s estate planning was compromised by unscrupulous practices, we can help. Cases of disputed estate plans, particularly the contents of wills, are litigated in probate court, where our Springfield probate lawyers have years of experience.
Whether you need assistance building an estate plan from scratch, keeping an existing estate plan current, or litigating a conflict in probate court, our legal team at Hare, Stamm, Harris & O’Connor, LLC can help. We have an intimate knowledge of Massachusetts estate planning law and can leverage that knowledge to optimize your documents and strategize on how to achieve a favorable outcome in probate.
We realize that contemplating what will happen when you pass away can be uncomfortable, but you owe yourself and your loved ones a rock-solid plan. We can help you build it. Dial (413) 251-6232 or contact us online to schedule a free initial consultation.