Although it may seem as if we are still in the middle of winter, our printed calendars do suggest that spring is near. For many, its arrival initiates the annual exercise of cleaning – washing the drapes, dusting the ceiling fan blades, and an overall freshening of the house. For perhaps a smaller number of cleaning enthusiasts, this ritual also includes the re-organization of closets and sorting through file cabinets or stacks of paperwork. And for an even smaller percentage of cleaners, sorting may involve a review of legal documents.
If your spring cleaning tradition doesn’t include a legal document-sort, should it? Here are some suggested guidelines.
Do you know where your original will is? How about that life insurance policy you bought in 1971? Do you recall seeing a copy of your trust somewhere in the junk drawer, near the ink spill from the leaking pen? Does the blue-back cover on your power of attorney now appear grey due to the half-inch layer of dust clinging to it? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then it just may be time to dust it off and actually re-read the document.
Other arguably more practical clues which may indicate a need for review include a change in marital status, the death of a family member or designated beneficiary, a change in financial status, a decline in health, or the mere passage of time. Any number of changes may suggest the appropriateness of reviewing your legal documents or overall estate plan.
While documents that you signed years ago do not become invalid or stale merely due to the passage of time, they can become inconsistent with current wishes. For example, you may have purchased a life insurance policy in 1965, naming your now-deceased spouse as primary beneficiary and your sibling as contingent beneficiary. Since that time, you have had three children and updated your will, but never re-visited the beneficiary designation on that life insurance policy.
It is very easy to let the years pass and create unintentional inconsistencies within an estate plan. And while it may not be as fun as wiping down the window blinds, dusting off documents during your annual spring cleaning may just as worthwhile.
Jennifer R. Luitjens is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the ABA. She lives in Jericho and practices in South Burlington.