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The pitfalls of your parents' estate can help you plan your own

Watching your parents age is difficult. After they are gone, you may be the one to handle their estate. Administering an estate can be a difficult experience, especially if your responsibilities overlap with your grieving process. Yet, it can also be a very enlightening process.

You may have thought that your parents had an ideal estate plan in place, only to realize during your work as an executor that many details were unaddressed or mishandled. Your parents later days may have been fraught with medical issues, further complicating matters. Frustrating experiences can help you learn how to avoid similar issues in the future.

Keeping your will updated and current is critical

Did your parents create their wills years ago without updating them as your family changed? Failing to update and change a will, trust or estate plan can cause all kinds of problems. People who are no longer alive or related by marriage may still be mentioned. New additions to the family may not be named as beneficiaries. Those oversights can lead to unhappy families and protracted issues during the administration process.

The best practice is to review the terms of your will or estate plan at least every other year. If something has changed in your family, you can update the contents. If your assets have changed substantially due to acquisitions or losses, your will and estate plan may also require updates. Keeping your estate planning documents current can help ensure that your wishes are carried out when you pass on.

Assign duties to people you trust while you can

People often forget to plan for situations like strokes, comas or other forms of incapacitation. If you can't communicate your medical wishes, does your family know what you want? Have your preferences changed due to new medical conditions? Your best option is usually to create an advance directive (a medical power of attorney) that grants someone you truly trust the power to make important medical decisions on your behalf. You can even outline your preferences in writing to ensure they get followed.

Financial powers of attorney are also an important issue to handle now. If you can't pay your bills, someone else will need to handle those obligations. A power of attorney that allows a family member or close friend to access certain accounts and act on your behalf can ensure your bills and other financial obligations are handled properly.

What to do next

If none of this makes sense, you are not alone. Get educated about your options, and take steps today to smooth the way for your family later.

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