For the last several months, we have been inundated on the news about the continuing saga of Anna Nicole Smith – the death of her son, her millions of dollars, the prospective father to her baby, and how she died. Anyone who reads her Last Will and Testament knows that from a legal standpoint, several questions are left unanswered. For instance, the Will gives her money to her now deceased son and it does not mention her nearly 6-month old daughter. Granted, her son’s death was an ordeal and there are questions of her own substance abuse problems, but she was surrounded by lawyers, including her “companion”, who should have encouraged her to update her Will.
You do not need to have millions of dollars or the soap opera drama of this reality star’s life to know that if you do not have a Will or fail to update it when appropriate, you could leave your heirs in a world of hurt, court appearances, family disagreements, and tax liability if you do not plan accordingly.
Oftentimes, people will write a Will after the birth of a child in order to name who should be that child’s guardian in the tragic event of death of the parents. Then, they neglect to review the Will and consider updating it – often for years after their newborn baby, him or herself, has gotten married.
If this sounds like you, you should consider several questions. For instance, what is your net worth? Have you accumulated wealth over the years that may someday be susceptible to the estate tax? Do you have minor grandchildren now? What about their future? Do you have any children or grandchildren with disabilities? If so, have you left them an inheritance in such a way that it will not jeopardize their disability benefits? Have you considered any charitable gifts (i.e., helping your church, schools, service organizations, etc)?
Anna Nicole Smith failed to plan for her newborn baby. Now dozens of people are fighting to control her money and to have custody of the baby. You do not need to have excessive wealth to have family feuds about inheritance. Sometimes the smallest estates lead to the largest family squabbles. Possession of family heirlooms can lead to family discord. The result is typically drawn-out court battles where the attorneys representing the fractious parts of the family get the most money from the estate. Just think what all of the Anna Nicole Smith attorneys will end up with at the end of this battle.
Take time to give careful consideration to your wishes and update your Will and estate plan accordingly. Do not let years pass by without considering changes in circumstances for yourself and your loved ones. Consult with an attorney to prepare documents that reflect your intentions and help to ensure that your family does not declare war on itself.
Anthony J. DelGiorno is an associate with Rammelkamp Bradney Law Offices practicing in elder law, estate planning, probate, tax, and litigation. He can be reached in their Springfield Office at (217) 522-6000.