Just like a car, the best Estate Plans require Maintenance

Look at that! isn’t she beautiful! We all love the glow of the unmarred, slightly sparkly surface, the shiny hubcaps, the black satin new tires.  Some of us enjoy new car smell, being the first owner, pushing, pulling, and turning knobs and dials for the first time.  What’s not to like about a new car? The joy of anticipating all those future road trips, the wonder of untold future adventures, the vast, amazing, and silly stories shared when we get back home.

Along with buying a new car comes a certain amount of responsibility.  To go anywhere, we need to buy gas and pay for tabs and insurance.  Regardless of your level of mechanical skill, regular maintenance like oil changes, keeping fluids topped, and replacing tires and worn out parts is now an understood expectation.

We see many articles about estate planning and its tools — wills, trusts, power of attorney, and health care directives. Professional advisers of various stripes tell us we need to make sure we’ve got these documents set up for ourselves.  They tell us lots of reasons why we should have them, but no one tells us about what happens next.

Once you have established an estate plan for yourself, what do you do now?  Well, just like buying a car, there is a significant initial cash outlay.  Also just like owning a car, once that initial investment is made, regular maintenance is hopefully cheaper and intelligently done.

Traditionally, the long-held idea about estate planning is that once the documents are signed, the job is done. Generally, people don’t like contemplating their own mortality.   Succession planning, post-death transfers, and facing the reality that our time here on earth does have an endpoint is something many people figure they can handle doing once. Considering estate planning as an ongoing endeavor doesn’t sit well with traditionalists.

I offer the following information to provide a bit of perspective on this idea of “traditionalists.”  The Baby Boomer generation in the U.S. consists of those 76 million babies born between the years 1946-1964.  Today, those people are age 50-68 and comprise about 35% of the adult American population.  An often used statistic is that about 10,000 people each day turn 65. [www.prb.org/justhowmanybabyboomersarethere?]

The Baby Boomers came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a time in our history when the young people of our country challenged traditionally held beliefs and ideas.  This is the generation brought us the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the beginnings of economic, medical, and technological advancement that we are still benefiting from today.  The Baby Boomers challenged tradition constantly.

There is a logic to the idea that when one invests what one considers a large amount of resources into an endeavor, that one is likely interested in the outcome of that endeavor.  The word “resources” can mean money.  It can also mean time and careful attention to not just accomplishing a goal, but the lasting consequences that are created by achieving that goal.

When one buys a car, they are likely going to ensure that the car is maintained to a certain level so that it runs reliably. When one creates an estate plan, rather than simply locking those papers away in a drawer or placing them in a box in a safe place, consider challenging the traditional assumption that your work here is done.  Estate planning is less about a single moment that marks the end of one’s lifetime and more about creating a plan that carries you through to the end of your days as you wish and then transferring what’s left to others who survive you.

Such a plan requires maintenance. Maintenance for your estate plan means reviewing it periodically. The people you need to help you put your plan into action may change. The assets you have to work with today may change. Your own goals and desires may change.  Rather than waiting to give all the grandkids some amount upon your death, some year, you may wish at Christmas or on birthdays to give that amount to them while you are still around to see them enjoy that gift.  The same goes for treasured items.  Instead of waiting until after you pass, you may wish to bestow family heirlooms to your children or others during life.

Documents created as part of your estate plan also require maintenance. Document maintenance.  Typically, a few of the documents that make up a basic estate plan are a Will, Power of Attorney, and Health Care Directive. If the person (or people) you have nominated to act on your behalf becomes unavailable (because of their own death, medical issues, or you’ve simply changed your mind), you will need to update your plan.

Strategy maintenance. As one’s family grows and changes, strategies used to create one’s estate plan may become outdated. Different strategies come into play as one’s children become adults, get married, and have children of their own. People who are single get married and people who are married may find themselves single again. Periodically reviewing one’s estate plan so that assets transfer along the pathways one intends can be called maintenance, but it is simply prudent.

Regular car maintenance ensures that one’s car runs reliably as well as uncovers parts as they begin to wear out. Replacing parts that are showing signs of wear is usually better than experiencing the surprise of a sudden breakdown.

Regular estate planning maintenance ensures that the goals and ideas you have about your person, possessions, and assets take place as YOU intended. Pulling that plan out of the drawer every so often gives you the opportunity to make sure the people you picked to help make  your plan happen are still who you want to play those roles.  Additionally, surprises like family treasures or assets transferring in ways no longer or never intended are minimized because of regular attention and review of the details.

Just like maintenance of a car, maintenance of an estate plan ensures your plan runs smoothly now and well into the future.


Barbara Heen is an estate planning attorney with offices in Willmar and Maynard. When she isn’t providing planning services to clients, she is likely planning the next great adventure road trip for her family.



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