Article as it appeared in CapeCod.com
“Life happens.” It’s such a common saying because it’s true – life does happen. Children are born, people marry, many go off to college, some couples divorce, some come into money or property, others have a health issue occur and so on. As a result, you may want prepare your estate plan so that you are prepared for the unexpected.
Life events such as these, among others, are often what prompt a person to seek an estate planner. Yet, estate planning is so much more than just writing a will or naming someone as having power of attorney.
Estate planning is the process of deciding who will receive your assets when you die. One aspect of estate planning is ensure your wealth and other assets go to only those you intend. This involves an emphasis on minimizing taxes so that your beneficiaries can keep more of what you leave them. Just as importantly, good estate planning can reduce family discord and provide clear instructions should you become incapacitated before passing away. There is nothing worse than having a medical incident and finding out that you have not updated your health care agent and it’s still your ex-spouse!
According to Michelle Beneski, Managing Partner at Surprenant & Beneski, PC, there is no time like the present to sit down with someone who is an expert in estate planning. There are so many events that happen in life and we’re not always prepared for them.
“When your child turns 18, now they’re legal adults. They’re still relying on you to make all their appointments and do all their things,” Beneski said. “I’ve seen it happen where the child goes off to college, they get in a car accident, for example, and nobody is legally empowered to make any of their decisions. Having a healthcare proxy and power of attorney and a HIPPA release will allow you to still be there for them and act on their behalf. A lot of folks come in at retirement age, but they really should come in a lot sooner.”
There are also the big life events that happen – marriage, the purchase of a home, the birth of children, divorce and so many others. “If you win the lottery or if there’s a major event that happens and you wonder how you’re going to manage it, that’s the time to talk to an estate planning attorney,” Beneski said.
“Retirement, and when someone is diagnosed with an illness and is starting to decline, that’s the time to talk to an attorney,” added Daniel Surprenant, Managing Partner and brother of Michelle Beneski. He added that having wealth is not the deciding factor of whether or not you need an estate plan.
Personal assets can include anything of present or future value owned by an individual or household, such as a house, a car, physical cash, investments like bank accounts, life insurance and other personal property. If you don’t consider yourself wealthy, don’t let that prevent you from seeking advice.
“Even if they just have a house, a car and a little bit of money in the bank, they’ll still want to avoid probate. If they lose mental capacity due to a stroke, a heart attack, a car accident or dementia, they’re going to want to have named (the person) who will handle their house and apply for Medicaid for them, and make their legal and financial decisions, as well as their medical decisions, without having to go through probate court for that process.”
Before joining the firm in 2006, Surprenant had been an Assistant District Attorney, prosecuting criminals, followed by civil litigation. Surprenant’s experience in elder law and estate planning is extensive. He is a past president of MassNAELA (Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys), which is the largest and most active chapter in the country, and he is a CELA (Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation).
Following law school, Beneski spent another year getting her masters in tax law and, from there, worked as a tax attorney. Her tax and accounting background were a perfect fit for her family’s firm, as their father changed the focus of the firm to elder law and estate planning. When she had accumulated the necessary experience in elder law, Beneski received her certification as an elder law attorney from the National Elder Law Association, making she and Surprenant two of only 25 CELAs in Massachusetts.