Estate planning: Waiting can be costly to your family


By Cathleen Summers

Do you know what happens if you die without a will? The courts will decide who will raise your children, manage your assets, inherit your possessions and administer your estate. Heirs must usually agree on a court appointed administrator.

What happens if you become incapacitated and are unable to manage your own affairs? Who will step into to your shoes to handle all of your financial dealings? Without a plan the courts will select the person to manage your affairs.

Without proper organization your assets could go unnoticed or become lost and loved ones may not benefit from your years of hard work.

Planning for your future through an estate plan is not something just for wealthy people; at its core, an estate plan is the process of arranging your affairs to meet your wishes regarding the use, conservation and disposal of your assets. It also identifies who will make your financial and health care decisions should you become unable to do so during your life.

There are four common estate-planning documents that we recommend for all clients — a Durable Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, Will and Trust. Both the Durable Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy documents involve decision-making during your life. If you lose the ability to make your own financial or health care decisions, your family must go to probate court to get a guardianship and conservatorship to make those decisions for you. These proceedings are public, time-consuming and costly; and worst of all, the person appointed by the court might not even be someone you would have wanted or trusted.

Signing a power of attorney and health care proxy, however, allows you to name the person(s) you want to be responsible to make these sensitive decisions for you and keeps your private affairs outside of the court system.

Wills and trusts on the other hand involve asset management and inheritance. A will is simply a letter of instruction appointing someone to be in charge of your estate and specifies how you want your estate to be distributed or divided. If you do not have a will, the “intestate laws” of the state determines who will inherit your assets and you will lose the ability to choose your executor. A will is essential to giving you control over these important issues. What a will cannot do, however, is avoid the expense and delays of probate. This is where a trust comes into play.

Avoiding probate allows you to keep your assets and beneficiaries out of the public probate court records. A trust also allows your beneficiaries to immediately access funds upon your death, and in some cases can even protect your assets from creditors.

These days no one likes the idea of spending money. But one upside to this tough economy is that we have all become more educated consumers. A good estate plan can help provide financial security for you and for your family members, now and in the future. If you take the time to understand the estate planning process and the expense, delays and hardships that could result in the absence of planning, you’ll come to understand why failing to plan can be costly to your family.

Cathleen H. Summers, a founding partner of Summers, Summers & Associates, P.C. an elder law, estate and life planning law firm located in Acton, MA. She may be reached at or by calling 978-263-0006. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at