According to recent, prominent studies, nearly two thirds of American adults do not have a formal estate plan set up.

For those in the minority who have prepared a living trust, will, or other estate documents, you’re one step ahead. However, just because you’ve established these initial steps doesn’t necessarily mean your estate plan is settled. A thorough estate plan requires continual updating as circumstances change. Even if you have been good about making updates, there are crucial components you may have overlooked. Designating beneficiaries and decision makers for retirement accounts or life insurance policies are a prime example.

Your designated beneficiaries and decision makers are living people, so it’s important to consider what may also happen to them. Even the most well thought out plans can go awry, but proper consideration of all potential scenarios can play a large role in ensuring your wishes stay intact after you’re gone.

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Are Backup Decision Makers Necessary?

Short answer: Yes. A proper estate plan lines up multiple decision makers to carry out your wishes.

You should put careful thought into determining which individuals to appoint as decision makers. They’ll need to be trusted, as important decisions regarding your affairs will come their way. It’s also possible that at some point, they will no longer have the capacity or willingness to carry out the decisions asked of them. This is where backup individuals are important. We recommend having at least two backups for each of the above positions.

People, and your perception of them, can change over time. Some of these changes will impact their capacity to fulfill your last wishes. For instance, the person you initially designate as trustee might turn out to lack knowledge of finances. This raises a red flag, because they’ll be the one handling your money after you’re gone. And if your designated guardian turns out to be not so great with children, you’d want to reconsider who you appoint to take care of your kids.

There doesn’t need to be any suspicious behavior to influence a decision maker change. Often times, something as predictable as age plays a factor. Somebody who you designated as a guardian when they were in their 40’s may not be as fit for the position in their 60’s. On the same token, someone too young to appoint as a guardian now may be ideal in ten or so years.

A backup decision-maker is also necessary to replace one that dies, becomes disabled, or expresses that they no longer wish to take on the responsibility of a designated position.

The main thing you should takeaway is to continually check in on your choices for designated decision makers and name backups when necessary. Alternatives act as a fail-safe to ensure that people you love and trust – not the courts – end up making decisions on your behalf after you’re gone.

Who Will Look After Your Pets?

Your furry, feathered, and even scaled friends are part of your family. Often, they require more day-to-day attention and care than children. So who will take care of them when you’re no longer around?

Pets are certainly not overlooked in your daily life. Some sleep on the bed, eat like royalty, and get groomed handsomely. But it’s possible that your pets weren’t given much thought in the midst of planning your estate with an attorney. After all, there’s a lot on your mind during the process.

Believe it or not, you can name a legal guardian for your pets after you’re gone. Similar to other designated positions, it’s helpful to have backups lined up if your first guardian choice doesn’t work out. Additionally, you can include information on how they can find a suitable home or shelter to be surrendered to in the case that no one can care for your pet. Aside from addressing who the caretaker will be, it’s beneficial to write out your wishes for how your pet should be cared for. This way, the designated guardian will know all of the animal’s quirks, medications, allergies, and their favorite spot to be rubbed.

Are your Contingent Beneficiaries Lined Up?

A named beneficiary is the individual within your estate plan who will inherit your monetary and property assets when you die. When you pass and your estate is administered, your assets are distributed or managed by your designated beneficiaries. Some instances require a contingent (backup) beneficiary.

If you do not have a contingent beneficiary in these scenarios, your assets may be dealt with according to state law. This often involves enacting the probate process. This lengthy process can delay asset distribution, lead to increased settling costs, and cause family infighting. To avoid these unfavorable outcomes, it’s best to designate one or more contingent beneficiaries for the benefit of everyone.

Always Think of the Unthinkable

It’s not fun to think about, but you should be prepared for the unthinkable situation where all the loved ones you designate as beneficiaries pass away before you.

Yes, it’s highly unlikely, but it’s happened before. In this case, having contingent beneficiaries will not suffice because nobody will legally be able to accept the assets in your estate. Depending on your state of residence, if you have no surviving beneficiaries, the government could obtain all your money and property by default.

Even though it’s uncommon, this scenario could afflict those with few living relatives. By adding a family disaster plan or remote contingent beneficiary to your estate documentation, you are able to designate a charity or organization that will receive your assets.

Preparing Your Estate for the Unexpected

Unexpected life events can often prompt people to take action on their estate plan. At the very least, one should have a basic will, but many people still put off accounting for their assets once they’re gone. Procrastination, a perceived lack of money and property, and concern for the cost and energy required to implement an estate plan can turn some away from the process.

The estate planning process is not as costly or intensive as you may think, especially when hiring a knowledgeable estate sale lawyer. And considering the cost of NOT having an estate plan, it would be selfish to leave your surviving family with the burden. Not to mention, your hard-earned assets could end up in the government’s hands if not prepared adequately. For those who have already taken steps to secure their estate plan, this is a great start. With effective back-ups to weather the unexpected, your life plan will be able to determine who will make decisions, take care of your pets, and inherit your assets after you have deceased.

No matter where you are in the estate planning process, we encourage you to reach out to our real estate lawyers to ensure that everything you worked for in your life goes to the people you love and trust. Contact Anderson, Dorn, and Rader to begin your journey to peace of mind for you and your family’s future.

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