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Most people don't update their estate plans. You need to.

You started thinking about estate planning as your kids got older. Maybe you even had your first grandchild. Suddenly, the reality of passing on your estate really hit you. You sat down and made an estate plan to distribute your assets in accordance with your wishes. You also noted what type of medical care you'd like to receive and you set up a special education trust for your grandchild.

That was 10 years ago. You haven't looked at it since. Is that a problem?

Updating your plan

Yes, it is a problem. An estate plan that hasn't been updated can cause all sorts of issues for your heirs. It can result in hurt feelings, legal disputes and a lot of other problems that you really wanted to avoid.

That said, you are not alone. Studies have looked exclusively at people who had done their estate planning and written their wills. What the studies found was that a full 86 percent of them had not made any updates in the past half of a decade. Five years is a long time, and a lot can change, but most people never gave a second thought to the plan.

Life changes

Even more important than considering a specific amount of time is looking for life events. When these changes happen, you need to update the documents, no matter how recently you did it. Potential life events include:

  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • The onset of a disease
  • The death of a spouse
  • The birth of a new heir, whether it's a child or a grandchild
  • Significant financial losses
  • Significant financial gains

When these things occur, your plan needs to reflect your new situation. If it doesn't, it may cause a lot of problems in the future.

For instance, imagine that you made the plan after your first grandchild was born. You have two children of your own. You left 45 percent of your estate to one child and 45 percent to the other, and you put the other 10 percent in an education trust for your grandchild.

In the next 10 years, your other child also had a child. You didn't make any updates, so that grandchild does not have an education fund. That side of the family gets less of your estate -- 45 percent to 55 percent. Both your own child and that grandchild may feel hurt and offended that you did not make the same plans for them. It can even spark legal disputes if your heirs think it is unfair or that it doesn't line up with your wishes.

Making those updates

You want to avoid difficult, emotional conflicts after you pass away. Make sure you know how to create and update an estate plan that works for your family.

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