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Include an estate plan in resolutions

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Here's a New Year's resolution to add to your list: Take time during the first part of this year to set up an estate plan that is designed for your specific family situation. If you already have such a plan, make sure it is up to date by having it reviewed by competent estate planning attorneys.

An estate plan isn't something cast in stone that never needs alteration or fine-tuning. I frequently meet with people who have not had their will or trust reviewed for 10, 15 or 20 years.Well, changes in your family or financial circumstances, as well as changes in the law, make the ongoing review of your estate plan crucial to preserving its benefits for you and your family. Just as you wouldn't spend good money on a home to protect your family from the elements of rain, cold and heat, and then let the house fall into disrepair, you should similarly maintain and update your estate plan so that it will continue to protect your family and loved ones.

While we recommend an annual review, here are some benchmarks that strongly indicate that an estate plan review is in order.

Children and grandchildren attain important milestones, such as entering college, getting married or having children of their own. These are events you may want your will or trust to provide funds for to help your loved ones. By the same token, if a loved one has divorced, this may need to be addressed in your estate plan as well.

Just as you probably don't want to inadvertently leave your estate to your ex-spouse, you probably wouldn't want to leave any part of it to your ex-son-in-law or ex-daughter-in-law either. So, whenever marriage or divorce happens to anyone in your family, consider how this new union or untied knot may impact your estate plan.

Then there are your loved ones' changing financial fortunes. For instance, an adult daughter with a highly successful business and no children of her own may need less from you than an adult son with a large family and a modest income. These changes warrant a review of your estate plan.

Finally, consider any changes in the health of your loved ones. If a family member has become severely ill or injured, his or her need for support from you may grow exponentially. That's especially true if your loved one's ability to earn a living has been impaired. A special cause for concern is a loved one who receives benefits under a government assistance program. Without careful planning, the inheritance this loved one receives from you could make her ineligible for government benefits.

Financial fortunes can change quickly. The rise and fall in the worth of our assets or the acquisition of new assets can have a profound impact on our estate plans. For example, a highly appreciated asset - such as a piece of real estate, a stock, or a work of art - can pose a capital-gains problem. If you've seen your overall net worth grow substantially, this increase could significantly impact your estate tax liability. Conversely, an investment loss, or a significant downturn in your financial status may also create issues that should be addressed.

Many people do not realize how their ownership of life insurance affects their estate planning. A policy left to a family member is a very kind and noble gift to make, but leaving the same policy to a Living Trust allows the insured person to have much greater control over how the insurance proceeds are distributed, managed and controlled. the trustees of a Family Living Trust creates increased control over distribution of the policy. Also, most people don't realize the estate-tax consequences of owning life insurance, and that such consequences can be avoided if they simply own the policy in the name of an insurance trust rather than personally.

New laws can impact an existing estate plan, and 1997 ushered in new federal tax laws. Do the new laws impact your family? A trusted estate planning attorney or financial advisor can review your family situation, in light of the new tax laws, to see what planning steps are in order for you.

If you haven't already put an estate plan into motion, do so now. The peace of mind will be well worth the time, effort and money. And if you do have an estate plan, have it reviewed and updated to make sure it continues to deliver all the benefits you want for yourself and your family.