Estate planning documents may be updated several times throughout someone’s life. The needs of a college student or a young professional are vastly different from the estate planning requirements of a new parent or a retired adult. Although it is best to start estate planning early in life, people often have to revisit their documents multiple times as their circumstances evolve.
Someone’s health and family situation, as well as their personal resources, are often determining factors in re: what they want to do with their property when they die and what kind of support they may request in the event of an incapacitating emergency. Adults may add or remove beneficiaries from their estate or change who will handle their financial needs if they become incapacitated.
Estate planning documents must generally be altered when people get divorced, remarry or add children to the family. These changes are simply a reflection of the evolution of someone’s needs as their life changes. However, sometimes people make drastic changes in the last months of their lives that seem to contradict their prior wishes.
Why might last-minute updates to estate planning documents be a reason for concern among family members?
1. The risk of undue influence
It is very suspicious when someone’s estate plan changes late in life to primarily benefit a caregiver. Those with the closest personal relationships to an older adult or in charge of their medical care or daily needs can sometimes abuse their authority by manipulating or threatening the older adult.
Major estate plan changes that deviate from lifelong wishes in favor of a caregiver are sometimes the result of undue influence rather than someone’s true intentions.
2. Lack of testamentary capacity
Even if the changes someone makes in their final months don’t directly benefit one person, they could still be a reflection of someone’s changing mental acuity in their final days. Often, especially with older adults struggling with health issues, cognitive decline is a real concern when making updates to existing estate planning documents.
If someone lacked the testamentary capacity to create legally binding documents, family members may need to speak up about those late revisions in favor of their prior, long-term wishes. Family members concerned about undue influence, cognitive decline and other issues that may compromise the validity of testamentary documents may need to bring the matter to the attention of the courts.
Recognizing warning signs that probate litigation may be necessary to protect someone’s legacy and help to empower family members to take action on behalf of a recently deceased loved one.