Estate Planning Lawyers Serving the Lynnfield, Wakefield, Reading, Peabody, Danvers, Beverly, the Greater Boston, North Shore, and Southern New Hampshire area
There are many legal strategies involved in estate planning, including wills, revocable living trusts, irrevocable trusts, durable powers of attorney, and health care documents. Each of these documents is important, but the most crucial aspect of an estate plan is the alignment of the assets so they are distributed according to your wishes at the time of your death. Many people equate estate planning with documents. Properly drafted documents are important, but people are often surprised that wills do not avoid, but guarantee probate! The way assets are titled and how beneficiaries are named is often more important than the documents themselves. The documents must also be kept up to date for the plan to work and the family to be taken care of at the time of death or incapacity.
How We Work:
Our team at Family Planning Law Group will work with your family to create a plan that not only addresses your goals and concerns now but one that will take care of your family when it matters most. When you decide to work with us, we become part of your team for life.
A Team Approach
At Family Estate Planning Law Group, you will not only work with attorneys, but the entire experienced team will help you with your estate plan.
Ongoing Client Care Program
We help you take care of your family when it really matters through our ongoing client care program, which helps you ensure your estate plan is always up to date. Not only will we assist you in the creation and design of the right estate plan for you, but once it is in place, we work with you to maintain and update your estate plan as part of our program.
You Can’t Execute Your Estate
We utilize the Family Care Meeting™ so beneficiaries, trustees, and other loved ones know your wishes. At the Family Care Meeting™ those who will administer your plan and family members involved in the plan gather to discuss the planning you’ve been doing while you’re still around to explain it. It’s not common practice in estate planning, but we have found that this small step in the process results in a smoother trust administration process and serves as a point of comfort to many families.
We Consolidate Assets and Align Them with Your Estate Plan
Estate planning is not an event, it is a process and as life changes, assets change. We help you to ensure all of your assets are properly aligned with your estate plan.
Flat Rate and Transparent Meetings with Your Attorney When Needed
No extra cost and access to team members and your attorney to answer questions and help handle life changes that come up.
Client Education Events & Webinars
We host several client education webinars and events throughout the year, so you can stay up to date on any new information regarding estate planning.
We Seamlessly Work with Your Team
We will work with your team whether it’s your accountant, financial planner, or another resource.
Learn More About Estate Planning That Changes With Your Life
Estate planning is NOT an event, it is a process. We have developed a unique system to help you simplify, providing a smoother overall process.
Estate Planning FAQs
What happens if I die without an estate plan?
Dying without an estate plan is something you want to avoid at all costs. If you die without any type of estate plan in place—no will, no trust, not a single estate planning document—then the state of Massachusetts will essentially create a plan for you. This is legally known as intestate succession, and the goal is to get your assets into the hands of certain blood relatives. Unfortunately, these relatives may not be the people you want your estate to go to. Not only will your assets probably not go to those you would choose, but you will have also made your death even more traumatic for your loved ones. Additionally, you will lose any opportunity you might otherwise have had to minimize or avoid estate taxes. Even without an estate plan, any life insurance or retirement plans with a designated beneficiary, or any jointly-owned assets (such as real estate or bank accounts) will pass outside of probate. The remainder of your estate will be divided under Massachusetts intestate succession laws. Massachusetts law will generally distribute everything to your surviving spouse if you are married and if you have no children from another marriage or relationship. Absent a spouse or children, the court will divide your assets beginning with your closest family members—your parents. If your parents are not alive, your siblings are next in line, then the descendants of your siblings. If there are no living parents, siblings, nieces, or nephews, the court will move on to cousins. On its face, this may sound acceptable, but what if you haven’t spoken to your brother in thirty years and don’t want him to have anything of yours? It is far better to make those decisions on your own, rather than allow the court to make them. If you have a minor child and you die without a will, the child’s other parent automatically becomes the child’s sole legal guardian. If, however, you and your child’s other parent die together, then if you don’t have a will that designates a guardian for your minor child, the state of Massachusetts will make that decision for you. The process of finding a guardian for the minor child can take time and money, lead to heated family disagreements, and may result in your child being raised by someone you would never voluntarily choose. An estate plan can avoid all these adverse effects, allowing you to distribute your assets as you desire, and to choose the person you want to raise your child.
How often should I update my estate plan?
If you’ve taken the time and spent the money necessary to have a comprehensive estate plan created, it can be easy to pat yourself on the back for a job well done and never think about it again. This is a critical mistake made by many people who have estate plans—but whose lives have changed drastically since the estate plan was created. You likely know that your life can change in an instant, but what you may not know is that these changes can drastically affect your estate plan. Think about it—marriage, divorce, having a child, the death of a loved one, an increase in wealth, a significant decrease in wealth, or even moving from one state to another all warrant another look at your estate plan. Suppose you are in the process of divorce, but it is not finalized. You and your soon-to-be ex can barely stand to be in the same room at this point, but if you were to unexpectedly die, that person would inherit the bulk of your estate. How does that make you feel? Many people choose to review their estate plan annually, at the same time they take a look at their entire financial plan. At a minimum, you should review your estate plan every three to five years, or any time you have a major life event.
Can I make changes to my estate plan after it’s been created?
With the exception of an irrevocable trust, you can always make changes to your estate plan. While an irrevocable trust is just that—irrevocable—the more common revocable trust can be changed any time you like, in any way you choose. Similarly, you can update other estate planning documents like health care directives or your power of attorney at any time you wish, simply by revoking the previous version and doing a new one; however, you want to be sure to provide your updated health care directives or power of attorney to any institutions you had previously given them to in order to ensure they have the most recent version on file.
What is the best way to start the estate planning process?
If you’ve taken the leap and are ready to engage in estate planning, you may have no idea where to begin. A good place to start is by taking an inventory of all your assets, including financial assets and physical belongings. Once you have a comprehensive list of all your assets, you can start thinking about how you want those assets distributed following your death. Think about the future needs of your loved ones, including any family member with special needs. The goal will be to ensure your loved ones are financially taken care of after you pass. Once you have inventoried your assets and considered the needs of your family, you will choose a trusted individual—perhaps a friend or family member—to serve as executor or trustee. This individual will handle the necessary tasks following your death like managing property and finances, paying creditors, filing a final tax return on your behalf, and distributing assets according to your wishes. Here at Family Estate Planning Law Group, we understand that these steps can feel overwhelming, so rather than trying to navigate the process on your own, we suggest that your very first step be to call an experienced estate planning attorney who can help to guide you through the process. Our team would be happy to help you with this, and after a discussion with you to determine your planning goals and wishes will help you determine the best kind of plan for your unique situation, always working with you for the best outcome.
What are the tax implications of estate planning?
Careful estate planning can ensure that your loved ones pay the least amount of taxes possible on your estate. Your FEPLG team can take a comprehensive look at your specific situation, then carefully craft your estate plan to take advantage of every single tax break possible. Certain deductions can reduce the size of your estate, making it less likely that the estate would be subject to federal estate taxes. You can reduce the federal gift tax by staying within the allowable gift amounts to individuals each year. You may also consider setting up your estate to avoid the generation-skipping transfer tax. This is a tax imposed on property gifted to a grandchild to make up for taxes that were avoided by the generation skip. There can be legal ways to reduce or avoid this tax, which your team members can discuss with you. The state of Massachusetts levies an estate tax on any estate worth more than $1 million. It is important to discuss this issue with a FEPLG professional who can help you minimize this tax whenever possible.
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Your Last Will and Testament
Your last will and testament is just one part of a comprehensive estate plan. A will is the only place you can name a guardian for your minor children (under age 18). You can also name who will receive your property at your death and provide other instructions regarding how you would like your assets to be handled. If a person dies without a will they are said to have died “intestate” and state laws will determine how and to whom the person’s assets will be distributed. Unfortunately, many people confuse avoiding intestacy (the state’s default plan) with avoiding probate (court intervention that often leads to delays, added expense, and a lack of privacy). Wills guarantee probate and court intervention.
A will can have instructions sometimes referred to as a “testamentary trust.” They may contain tax-saving language, delay the distribution of assets to young children or other beneficiaries, but not only guarantee probate but actually prolong the probate process.
Here are a few things you should know about wills and testamentary trusts:
- A will is the only place to nominate a guardian for minor children. This is one of the most important aspects of a will and cannot be overlooked. All parents of minor children should document their choice of guardians so you do not set up a family battle or unintentionally send your children to a guardian you would not choose.
- A will does not become effective and therefore has no legal authority until after death. So a will does not help manage a person’s affairs when they are incapacitated, whether by illness or injury. Although you can nominate your executor (the person who can administer your probate assets in a public forum), they are ultimately appointed by the court. Until the court gets around to appointing your executor, your assets are in limbo and no one has the right to access and distribute your assets, pay expenses, and otherwise handle your financial affairs.
- A will does not help an estate avoid probate. A will is a legal document submitted to the probate court for approval, so it actually necessitates probate and forces your family to seek court intervention. Essentially, the court and those who do not know your family may make decisions for you.
- A will directs assets left in your name or that were not otherwise designated to pass to a specific person or entity after your death. This results in the court taking over the process, forcing your family to list all assets publically as they try to determine who should inherit. At that point, anyone has the ability to go to the probate court and see what you or your family own.
- Assets left in your name alone precludes anyone from having the legal authority over that asset after your death. Banks and financial institutions will freeze your accounts, shut down access to them, and prevent your family from accessing your assets until the court approves your will and appoints your executor.
- Having a will-based plan is rarely appropriate for clients who want to make things easy, private, and simple as they take care of their families.
- A testamentary trust is a trust created under a will and is not effective until not only the will but the trust, is approved by the court and the trustees of the trust are approved by the court. This causes a second layer of probate intervention and monitoring: not only will the executors be required to report and give an accounting to the probate court, but the trustees of the testamentary trust must also file a separate accounting.
Trusts: Revocable Living Trusts, Irrevocable Trusts, and Special Needs Trusts
Although there are many types of trusts created and effective during life, they all have the same basic purpose: to allow you to pass your assets in a manner you choose based on specific instructions, privately and without court intervention. All trusts are considered contracts and provide very specific instructions to make sure your family is taken care of in the manner you wish. These instructions can be simple or complex, and serve a variety of legal, personal, investment or tax planning purposes. At the most basic level, a trust is a legal entity with at least three parties involved: the trust-maker, the trustee (trust manager), and the trust beneficiary. In a revocable or living trust, often all three parties are represented by one person or a married couple.
A living trust often becomes the base estate planning document used to accomplish our clients’ wishes. The key to successful living trust planning, however, is that assets are aligned with the trust instructions. The trust can only control those assets “retitled” or “funded” with the name of the trust appearing on your accounts, real estate, and other assets. Insurance policies and some other assets must have the trust designated as a beneficiary to avoid probate and take advantage of the many protections and tax-savings a trust can provide.
Many of our clients also like to take advantage of instructions that allow any asset earmarked for a beneficiary to be protected from divorces, bankruptcy, and lawsuits. With the divorce rate as high as it is, some clients hope that protecting assets from divorce will be as valuable to their beneficiaries as savings on taxes. Fortunately, these trusts can be drafted to provide both tax and creditor protection while still allowing a beneficiary use and control of the assets.
Another valuable result of trust planning is that assets are immediately available following disability or death. If assets are owned in your name alone, banks and financial institutions are likely to freeze your accounts, rendering them inaccessible to pay for expenses. If instead the assets are aligned with a trust, the trustees have immediate access and the institutions are contractually bound to allow the trustees access to all accounts, allowing them to carry on your affairs without delay, court intervention, or added costs.
For more information, see Our Services.
Powers of Attorney
A power of attorney is a legal document giving another person (your “attorney-in-fact”) the legal right (powers) to do certain things for you. What those powers are, depends on the terms of the document. A power of attorney may be very broad or very limited and specific. All powers of attorney terminate upon the death of the maker, and some may terminate when the maker (principal) becomes incapacitated (unable to make or communicate decisions). A “Durable Power of Attorney,” however, is effective even in the event of incapacity and is what we typically recommend to our clients.
Unfortunately, not all banks and financial institutions accept powers of attorney. Some institutions accept only powers of attorney using their own company-specific forms or those forms approved by their legal department. As a result, a little-known fact in legal circles is that banks and financial institutions have routinely denied the use of powers of attorney or have made the process so cumbersome that many people do not even attempt to submit their powers of attorney.
We have seen how frustrating it can be for loved ones when an institution denies a power of attorney in the midst of an immediate need for access to funds to pay for healthcare or medical expenses in the event of incapacitation. Planning in advance and coordinating with the specific financial institutions is essential to make sure the power of attorney will be recognized when it really matters.
Health Care Documents (or Advance Directives)
A Massachusetts Health Care Proxy (sometimes called in other states an “advance medical directive”) is a document that specifies the type of medical and personal care you would want should you lose the ability to make and communicate your own decisions. Anyone over the age of 18 may execute a Massachusetts Health Care Proxy, and this document is legally binding in Massachusetts. Your advance directive can specify who will make and communicate decisions for you, and it can set out the circumstances under which you would not like your life to be prolonged if, for example, you were in a coma with no reasonable chance of recovery.
Another important document that goes hand-in-hand with your advance directive is a HIPAA release—an authorization to your medical providers to allow specified individuals to access your medical information. Without this authorization, your doctor may refuse access to your medical records and may not communicate with your designated decision-maker.
Serving Families in Massachusetts and New Hampshire
Our firm frequently serves families from many different areas, including Acton, Andover, Boxford, Carlisle, Concord, Hamilton, Lexington, Lincoln, Marblehead, Newburyport, North Andover, Swampscott, Wakefield, Wenham, Winchester, Wenham, Wilmington.