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Why empty nesters need a new estate plan

by Curtis Lee | Contributor
February 27, 2023

Older Americans are more likely to have an estate plan. For example, 45% of those 55 and older have estate planning documents, but this percentage falls to 27% and 24% for those aged 35 to 54 and 18 to 34, respectively, according to a Caring.com survey.

So, it’s no surprise that as a group, empty nesters are more likely to have created at least one estate planning document compared to parents with children still living at home. This is good news, given how many people haven’t done any estate planning, like creating a will.

However, just because there’s an estate plan doesn’t mean no more estate planning is needed. There are plenty of changes that may require adjustments, such as an updated will. This article takes a look at some of the changes that may apply to you as a new empty nester and why it’s usually a good idea at this time to create a new or revised estate plan.

Different responsibilities

With no more kids in the house to be responsible for, you might have new or different responsibilities to deal with. Depending on what these are, they may impact your already existing estate plan. These responsibilities can often be categorized into three groups:

  • Family
  • Leisure
  • Business

Family responsibilities

Empty nest

The most obvious difference here is that you likely no longer have the same legal responsibility for your children. Typically, this is because your children are now the age of majority. Because of this, there’s no longer a need for you to assign a guardian to take care of your children should you and your spouse pass away unexpectedly.

Even though you may no longer be legally responsible for your kids, you might still have some financial responsibility for them. For instance, perhaps the children are now in college and you want to help pay for their education. And when you first created your estate plan, your children were in elementary school.

Instead of having an estate plan outlining how your children will receive financial support for their basic living expenses, the plan will shift into helping pay for their college tuition. This could necessitate a change to the terms of an existing trust or create the need for a new one.

Another potential change in family obligations could be taking care of different individuals. This could include serving as a legal guardian for the young children of a close family friend or family member. Despite the fact that you probably won’t have to actively take care of these young kids, you might need to unexpectedly and suddenly. Therefore, it’s a good idea for you to adjust your estate plans to account for these potential financial and legal responsibilities.

Leisure activities

With more time (and potentially money) available now that the kids are out of the house, you and your spouse may decide to take on new hobbies or leisure activities. Many of these probably won’t require an updated estate plan, but in certain situations, they might. For instance, if you and your spouse have always wanted to buy a sailboat and sail across the Pacific Ocean, an updated estate plan is probably a good idea.

Not only is there now a new significant asset to plan for, but you probably want to create a plan for handling everyday responsibilities, like paying bills, maintaining a home or even running a business for when you’re gone. This could require something like the addition of a power of attorney to handle your financial matters while you’re out at sea where no one can contact you for days or weeks at a time.

Business duties

Instead of spending additional time and money on one or more hobbies, you might be inclined to find a new career or start a new business. In the latter situation, you’ll likely want to adjust your estate plan to account for the new business.

Exactly what estate plan adjustments are needed will vary based on how your business is organized and who else is involved. Will this new business be a sole proprietorship, limited liability company or a corporation? The answer to this and other questions about your business will determine what updates you need for your estate plan, but below are some general changes that you should consider:

Financial shifts

When you first created your estate plan, your children were likely much younger and you probably had fewer assets, cash and valuable personal property. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it’s been a decade or longer since you last reviewed your estate plan or made any changes to it. Hopefully, now that your children have moved out, your financial situation has improved.

For example, you may have paid off your home, or at least now have significant equity in it. You could have new retirement accounts or your retirement accounts have enjoyed significant growth. Or maybe you now have a sizeable stamp collection or inherited family heirlooms of substantial value that you want to be passed down to specific children. Whatever the changes, you may need to identify them and explicitly outline how you want them passed down in your will.

Another possible financial change is that the financial needs of your children (if any) will likely be very different now than when they were living under your roof. If you’re no longer paying for their clothing, school supplies, car insurance and food, this may not warrant an updated estate plan.

However, what if you want to pay for their college or graduate education and want this financial support to continue if you’re no longer around? There’s a reasonable chance that your estate plan isn’t set up to continue providing this financial support. We can look at a hypothetical to illustrate.

Let’s say that when your children were much younger, you created an estate plan that said if you and your spouse were to die, your brother would become the legal guardian of your children. Your children would receive financial support from the proceeds from your and your spouse’s life insurance policies, with the money going into a trust with your brother as the trustee.

He would then use the money to pay for the reasonable needs of your children, including education costs. But when your children turned 18, the legal guardianship would end and whatever money left was over would stay in the trust until your children turned 25.

Now, your children are 18 and 19 years of age and in college. The above-described estate plan is no longer applicable and would make it impossible for the proceeds from your life insurance policies to be used to pay for your children’s college education. Now you can see why a revised estate plan could be necessary.

Health concerns

As we age, we’re more likely to suffer from health problems. Ideally, these are challenges that do little more than add a few daily inconveniences. But in some unfortunate situations, these health issues could be serious enough such that they create the realistic possibility of death or incapacitation.

If you already have a comprehensive estate plan, these health concerns may already be addressed. For example, you might already have a health care power of attorney and a living will (also known as an advance directive). But not everyone who has created an estate plan will have these documents; many will just have a will.

One reason you may not have these specific documents as part of your estate plan is because you decided to rely on your spouse to make these medical decisions for you. But your spouse is getting older, just like you. Now there’s an increased need to prepare for the situation where your spouse isn’t around to make your medical decisions for you should you become seriously injured or ill and can’t make your own medical decisions.

Even if you already have these health-related estate planning documents, it’s good to double-check them in case your wishes have changed. For example, you may no longer wish for your organs to be donated if you pass away or you might wish to implement a do-not-resuscitate or intubate order.

Relationship changes

If a lot of time has passed since you prepared or updated your estate plan, your relationships could be very different now.

You might have had a falling out with your siblings or a close friend, or you went through a divorce and remarried. There might even be a situation where you reconciled with an estranged family member.

For some of these relationship changes, such as a divorce, you should have already made the necessary adjustments to your estate plan. But in case you didn’t, now’s the time to get on it.

Also, it’s easy to forget to update parts of your estate plan for less significant changes to your relationships. That high school friend you wanted to inherit your baseball card collection might no longer be your friend and your youngest child who used to hate sports now has a baseball scholarship for college. Perhaps your youngest child should inherit the baseball collection, but your outdated will still lists your friend from high school as the beneficiary.

Speaking of beneficiaries, don’t forget to change those if necessary. You might have listed your spouse as a primary beneficiary and your child as a contingent beneficiary for a retirement account or life insurance policy. But if you’re now divorced and single with a child who can support themselves, you might want someone else to be the primary beneficiary, like a charitable organization or elderly parent.

Revised wishes

People change over time. So it’s not surprising that their wishes for how they want their property and assets distributed upon their death might change over time as well. As mentioned earlier, some of these estate plan changes could be the result of changes in relationships, but not necessarily all of them.

You might adjust your wishes because of the decisions you’ve made about your life. This might include changing churches, which means there’s a different religious organization you want to leave some of your assets to when you die. Other possible adjustments to your final wishes might include:

  • Deciding to leave money behind for a medical research organization.
  • Changing your lifestyle which results in the selling major assets like your car or home.
  • Realizing that your children no longer want to take over the family business, so you need to sell it before you pass away.

This list can include almost anything, but the point is that it’s your money and your property and you have the right to decide who should receive it when you die. You just need to ensure that those wishes get properly memorialized so your executor can carry them out.

A few more things you shouldn’t forget about

There are two more points to discuss when it comes to changing your estate plan when your kids live on their own. First, you should be aware of the possibility that your kids might move back in with you. Economic recessions, natural disasters and pandemics can result in young adults moving back in with their parents. If your kids move back in with you, this may not affect your estate plan, but it’s a good idea to plan for this contingency in case it does.

The second thing to keep in mind is that when you make changes to your estate plan, you’ll want to discuss it with those affected. This can include beneficiaries and heirs, as well as those who will help carry out your wishes, like executors, administrators and trustees.

If necessary, you may also want to run your proposed changes by certain people first. A good example of this is when you take someone out of your will or drastically reduce what they’re set to inherit from you. Individuals who get disinherited can be confused and hurt by the decision.

You can at least partially alleviate this situation by telling someone before you die that you’ve taken them out of your estate plan. This gives you the chance to explain your decision and makes it easier for that person to have closure when you do pass away. And from a practical standpoint, it can reduce the likelihood that the individual challenges the validity of one or more of your estate planning documents, like your will.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

Phone - 844.445.3422
Email - info@legacyassuranceplan.com
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