What Happens when Mom Refuses to Create an Estate Plan?

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This is a tough scenario. It happens more often than you’d think. A family member owns a home, investment accounts, and an inheritance, but doesn’t want to have an estate plan. They know they need to do something, but keep putting it off—until they die, and the family is left with an expensive and stressful mess. A recent article titled “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late” from Kiplinger, explains how to help make things right.

Most people put off seeing an estate planning attorney, because they are afraid of death. They may also be overwhelmed by the thought of how much work is involved. They are also worried about what it all might cost. However, if there is no estate plan, the costs will be far higher for the family.

How do you get the person to understand that they need to move forward?

Talk with the financial professionals the person already uses and trusts, like a CPA or financial advisor. Ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney they think would be a good fit for the person who doesn’t have an estate plan. It may be easier to hear this message from a CPA, than from an adult child.

Work with that professional to promote the person, usually an older family member, to get comfortable with the idea to talk about their wishes and values with the estate planning attorney. Offer to attend the meeting, or to facilitate the video conference, to make the person feel more comfortable.

An experienced estate planning attorney will have worked with reluctant people before. They’ll know how to put the older person at ease and explore their concerns. When the conversation is pleasant and productive, the person may understand that the process will not be as challenging and that there will be a lot of help along the way.

If there is no trusted team of professionals, then offer to be a part of any conversations with the estate planning attorney to make the introductory discussion easier. Share your own experience in estate planning, and tread lightly.

Trying to force a person to engage in estate planning with a heavy hand, almost always ends up in a stubborn refusal. A gentle approach will always be more successful. Explain how part of the estate plan includes planning for medical decisions while the person is living and is not just about distributing their assets. You should be firm, consistent, and kind.

Explaining what their family members will need to go through if there is no will, may or may not have an impact. Some people don’t care, and may simply shrug and say, “It’ll be their problem, not mine.” Consider what or who matters to the person. What if they could leave assets for a favorite grandchild to go to college? That might be more motivating.

One other thing to consider: if the person has an estate plan and it is out of date, that may be just as bad as not having an estate plan at all, especially when the person has been divorced and remarried. Just as many people refuse to have an estate plan, many people fail to update important documents, when they remarry. More than a few spouses come to estate planning attorney’s offices when a loved one’s life insurance policy is going to their prior spouse. It’s too late to make any changes. A health care directive could also name a former brother-in-law to make important medical decisions. During a time of great duress, it is a bad time to learn that the formerly close in-law, who is now a sworn enemy, is the only one who can speak with doctors. Don’t procrastinate, if any of these issues are present.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 11, 2020) “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late”

An Estate Plan Is Necessary for the Unthinkable

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The death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others reminded us that we never know what fate has in store for us. A recent article from The Press Enterprise titled Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst” explains the steps.

Put an appointment in your schedule. Make an appointment with a qualified estate planning attorney. If you make the call and have an actual appointment, you have a deadline and that’s a start. The attorney may have a planning worksheet or organizer that they can send to you to guide you.

Start getting organized. If this seems overwhelming, break it out into separate parts. Begin with the easy part: a list of names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses for family members. Include any other people who you intend to include in your estate plan.

Next, list your assets and an estimated value of each. It doesn’t have to be to the penny. Include the account numbers, name of the institution, phone number, and, if you have a personal contact, a name. Include bank accounts, real estate holdings, timeshares, stocks, bonds, personal property, vehicles, RVs, any collectibles of value (attach appraisals if you have them), life insurance, and retirement accounts.

List the professionals who you rely on—your estate planning lawyer, CPA, financial advisor, etc.

If you own a firearm, include your license and make sure that both your spouse and your estate planning attorney are aware of the information. In certain states, having possession of a firearm without being the licensed owner is against the law. Speak with your estate planning attorney about the law in your state and how to prepare for a situation if the firearm needs to be safely and properly dealt with.

Name an executor or personal representative. Estate planning is not just for death. It is also for incapacity. Who will act on your behalf, if you are not able to do so? Many people name their spouse, a long-time trusted friend, or a family member. Be certain that person is willing to act on your behalf. Have a second person also named, in case something occurs, and your first choice cannot serve.

If you have minor children, your estate plan will include a guardian, who will be responsible for raising them. Talk about that with your spouse and that person to make sure they are willing to serve. You can also name a second person to be in charge of finances for the children. Your estate planning lawyer will talk with you about the role of trusts to provide for the children.

Think about your overall goals. How do you see your legacy? Do you want to leave some funds for a charity that has meaning to you and your family? Do you want your children to receive equal shares of your entire estate? Does one child require special needs planning, or are you concerned that one of your children may not be able to manage an inheritance? These are all topics to discuss with your estate planning attorney. Their experience will help clarify your goals and create a plan so that you are prepared for the unthinkable.

Estate planning touches on topics people would prefer to avoid thinking about, but avoiding planning for the unthinkable will not protect you from it.

Reference: The Press Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2020) Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst”

Be Aware of Probate

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Probate is the legal process that happens after a person dies without a proper estate plan. The court accepts the deceased’s last will, and then the executor can carry out the instructions for the deceased’s estate. However, first he or she must pay any debts and sell assets before distributing any remaining property to the heirs.

If the deceased doesn’t have a will, the probate court will appoint an administrator to manage the probate process, and the court will supervise the process. The Million Acres article entitled asks, “Probate Explained: What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?”

When the will is proven to be legal, the probate judge will grant the executor legal rights to carry out the instructions in the will.

When there’s no will, the probate process can be complicated, because there’s no paper trail that shows what assets belong to what heirs. Tracking down heirs can also be challenging, especially if there’s no surviving spouse and the next of kin is located in a different state or outside the U.S.

Many executors will partner with a probate attorney to help them through the probate process, as well as to assist in filing the required paperwork, notifying creditors, filing taxes and distributing assets. The deceased’s assets must first be located and then formally appraised to determine their value.  Creditors must also be notified after death within a specified period of time.

After the creditors, taxes and fees have been paid on behalf of the estate, any leftover money or assets are distributed to the heirs.

The probate process can be lengthy. Things that can lengthen the process include the state when the deceased was a resident, whether there is a will and whether it is contested by the heirs. The more detailed the will, the simpler the probate process.

The probate process can be expensive, because of court filing fees, creditor notice fees, appraisal fees, tax preparation and filing fees and attorney fees. All of these fees are subtracted from the proceeds of the estate.

Estate planning with a qualified estate planning or elder law attorney involves taking the proper actions to avoid probate. This can reduce the burden for the surviving heir(s) and reduce costs, fees and taxes. Ask your attorney about some of the steps you can take before death to avoid probate.

Reference: Million Acres (Jan. 17, 2020) “Probate Explained: What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?”

Seriously, Why Do I Need a Will?

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The Times Herald-Record’s article “55 Plus: Four Reasons to Create a Will” provides some tips and important reasons for why you should make a will.

When you create a will with the help of an estate planning attorney, you are able to decide who will execute your estate.

Creating a will and appointing a trusted executor will help make certain that your estate is managed in accordance with your wishes and instructions. If you have a will, you help the people you leave behind. A legally valid will can avoid added costs of legal confusion of who is supposed to inherit your assets. If you pass away without a will, the state will decide how your estate is divided.

Creating a will allows you to determine who inherits your estate. Your estate will include your home, motor vehicles, financial accounts and any other personal property you want to pass on to your loved ones. The great thing about a will is that it clearly states the persons or organizations that will receive all or part of your estate after your death.

Consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney to help understand your state laws and probate procedures is a wise move.

In your will, you can also decide and designate the person(s) who will care for your minor children. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to appoint a guardian for your minor children, in the event of your death. If you don’t have a will stating a guardianship, a court can make the issue its own and appoint a guardian in your absence. It could be someone you don’t like or someone you hardly know.

By creating a will, you provide several benefits for yourself and your family. A will offers peace of mind that your loved ones will be cared for as you intend after you’re no longer around.

And if you are in California, it is likely that you will want a trust instead of a will because of the significant cost and time delay of the probate process. With the recent COVID-19 events, the probate process has been extended likely an additional 3-4 months on top of the already year+ long process. Many Courts are closed and filed cases will be delayed until the Courts re-open.

Finally, a reminder for those with wills and estate plans: review these documents every year or three to be certain that everything is up to date. You want to be sure that your estate plan includes any new spouse, birth or adoption of a child or grandchild, death of a relative and change in your financial situation.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Jan. 6, 2020) “55 Plus: Four Reasons to Create a Will”

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

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For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they need to know that they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

For one, taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default by law for a married couple (even a very unprepared one with no documents) is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It definitely won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially relevant when a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon the death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. This can be an easy way to include an unmarried partner in your estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless of who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it may be difficult to transfer to the other person. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care so that partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over the other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other until death do you part is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

Why are Two Brothers Fighting Over Their Mother’s Life?

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An elderly mom is at the center of a court battle between her two sons. Her eldest son is set to face off against his brother in Nassau County Court, arguing he wants to keep their mother on a ventilator and feeding tube, while his sibling wants to pull the plug.

The New York Post’s recent article entitled “91-year-old LI woman mouths ‘I want to live’ on video amid legal battle” reports that the older brother, Edward, submitted the video he says was taken in November. It shows their mother even mouthing the words, “I want to live.’’

The mom, Arline, has been physically incapacitated since suffering a string of circulation and breathing problems over the past year, Edward said. His brother, Kyle, asked a judge to declare him her sole guardian, noting that he hopes to take her off life support. However, he contends that this is what their mom would want.

Kyle accuses Edward of keeping their mom alive against her will, so he can stay in her Long Beach home and “plunder” her assets, including the total $5,400 she collects every month from Social Security and her pension. Kyle requested that the hospital take Arline off life support pursuant to her 1999 living will, in which she’d asked not to be kept alive by machines if she ever became seriously ill.

Edward says that his mother clearly changed her mind and denies he has a financial stake in keeping her alive. In fact, if her health improves enough that she can be moved from the hospital into a nursing home, as he hopes, her income and estate (and both sons’ inheritance) worth approximately a quarter-million dollars to each of them, will soon be eaten up by nursing-home costs, Edward argues. Edward says that he gave up his career in Colorado as a mortgage and real estate broker to come back to New York to care for her.

In his mother’s “I want to live” video, filmed in November from her hospital bed, Edward asks Arline, “You have no leg, right?” referring to a recent amputation of her left leg due to circulatory problems. She nods yes.

“You understand that?” he asks.

Again, she nods yes.

“You have a feeding tube in you, you understand that, right? You have a tracheotomy and you have the thing breathing for you?” Edward asks his mom.

His mother nods yes, each time.

Edward then urges her to mouth the words, “I want to stay alive,’’ just to be absolutely clear. She does.

“With everything wrong with you, do you still want to stay alive?” he asks again, gently.

Yes, she nods.

A week after the video was taped, she executed a living will, with the help of an elder law lawyer, that states, “I wish to be treated aggressively for all conditions” and directs doctors “to continue to prolong my life as long as possible, within the limits of generally acceptable health care standards.”

Edward said that the hospital staff conducted a competency hearing administered by a psychiatrist, and she was determined to be competent. He insists that there’s still a chance their mother’s health will improve.

Reference: New York Post (Jan. 5, 2020) “91-year-old LI woman mouths ‘I want to live’ on video amid legal battle” 

‘Bye Bye Love’ Rocker Ric Ocasek Cuts Wife Out of Will

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In a world where many stars have their estates dragged through the probate court, it can be a relief to see a celebrity use estate planning documents to accomplish their post-death goals. One example is Ric Ocasek.

The language in the will was very clear, according to the article “Cars singer Ric Ocasek cuts supermodel wife Paulina Porizkova out of will” from Page Six. There was no provision for his wife Paulina since they were in the process of divorcing. He added that even if he died before their divorce was finalized, she was not to receive any elective share “… because she has abandoned me.” This highlights the fact that Ocasek thought through different possibilities, and the lack of ambiguity makes it easier for a court to administer the will.

It was Porizkova who found Ocasek’s body in September while bringing him coffee as he recovered from recent surgery. The couple had two sons together and had called it quits in May 2018, after being married for 28 years. They met on set during the making of the music video for the Cars’ song “Drive.”

A filing with Ocasek’s will stated that his assets included $5 million in copyrights, but only $100,000 in tangible personal property and $15,000 in cash. The document did not detail the copyright assets.

That may seem like a small estate for someone with Ocasek’s fame. However, an attorney who examined the document told The New York Post that it was likely the Cars’ frontman probably had more assets protected through trusts, yet another indication that Ocasek was very intentional about his estate plan.

Like other high-profile performers who have considerable assets and who are savvy about finances, it’s possible that he has many more millions of dollars. Thanks to proper planning, however, they will not pass through probate and will be protected from the public view and scrutiny. That is why people use trusts, especially when they are public figures.

The Cars’ singer also seems to have left two of his six sons out of the will. The children he had with Porizkova were not left out of the will. Even though this may seem harsh, it’s possible that the sons who were left out of the will were compensated through other means. There may have been trusts set up for them, or life insurance proceeds.

The document indicates that the will was signed on August 28, less than a month before his death.

Ocasek died of heart disease on September 15. At the time, he also suffered from pulmonary emphysema. Mario Testani, his friend, and business manager is named as the executor.

The advance planning done in Ocasek’s estate is a lesson in how trusts and other estate planning methods can be used to maintain an individual’s privacy, even if some of their other assets pass through a will.

Reference: Page Six (Nov. 7, 2019) “Cars singer Ric Ocasek cuts supermodel wife Paulina Porizkova out of will”

Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

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When names change, executed documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, so there are some different solutions that can address this situation. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says, “I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts.” If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is used: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation where the sisters-in-law had such similar names, most attorneys want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, the names are too similar, as are their relationships with the testator. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second, the document being discussed in the case above is a healthcare designation. Usually, when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

Spare Family Fights: Make a Will

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Thinking about your own mortality can be something frightening that many people would rather not do, which makes something like creating a will a difficult thing to do. But if for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, everyone needs a will. Otherwise, the family might end up spending all their time fighting over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards.

But whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place – and that includes a will – is a gift of peace we can give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight when they don’t have a clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept the possibility of their own death, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Not only should you think about who will get your assets, you should also be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a way that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

The will can also provide reassurance and protection in case you need to appoint a guardian for your children. Because of this, parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation with long-lasting and detrimental effects on your children and their relationships with their other family members. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you tell the court what you want.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Only if you have these plans in advance can you express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced when you actually need them.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

What Happens When There’s No Will or the Will Is Invalid?

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The Queen of Soul’s lack of a properly executed estate plan isn’t the first time a celebrity died without a will, and it surely will not be the last says The Bulletin in the article “Aretha Franklin and other celebrities died without an estate plan. Will you?”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Hughes, and Prince all died without a valid will and estate plan. When actor Heath Ledger died, his will left everything to his parents and three sisters. The will had been written before his daughter was born and left nothing to his daughter or her mother (it should be noted that if Ledger lived in California he would have needed a trust to avoid probate). Ledger’s family later gave all the money from the estate to his daughter.

Getting started on a will is not that challenging if you work with an experienced estate planning attorney. They often start clients out with a simple information gathering form, sometimes in an online process or on paper. They’ll ask a lot of questions, like if you have life insurance, a prenup, who you want to be your executor and who should be the guardian of your children.

Don’t overlook your online presence. If you die without a plan for your digital assets, you have a problem known as “cyber intestacy.” Plan for who will be able to access and manage your social media, online properties, etc., in addition to your tangible assets, like investment accounts and real property.

Automatic bill payments and electronic bank withdrawals continue after death, and heirs may struggle to access photographs and email. When including digital estate plans in your will, provide a name for the person who should have access to your online accounts. Check with your estate planning attorney to see if they are familiar with digital assets. Do a complete inventory, including frequent flyer miles, PayPal and other accounts.

Remember that if you don’t make a will or trust, the state where you live has laws that will decide for you. Each state has different statutes determining who gets your assets. They may not be the people you wanted, so that’s another reason why you need to have a will or trust.

Life insurance policies, IRAs, and other accounts that have beneficiaries are handled separately from the will. Beneficiaries receive assets directly and that bypasses anything written in a will, so you should confirm and keep documentation that specifies who your beneficiaries are. This is especially important for unmarried millennials, Gen Xers, divorced people, single individuals, and widows and widowers, who may not have designated someone as a beneficiary.

Don’t forget your pets. Your heirs may not want your furry family members, and they could end up in a shelter and euthanized if there’s no plan for them. You can sign a “pet protection” agreement or set up a pre-funded pet trust. Some states allow them; others do not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help protect your beloved pets as well as your family.

Reference: The Bulletin (Sep. 14, 2019) “Aretha Franklin and other celebrities died without an estate plan. Will you?”