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Yearly Review: The Most Critical Part of Every Estate Plan

By Elliott H Stone

My clients are often amazed when they learn the most critical component of their estate plan is not the will, not the trust and not even the designation of who will be the “backup” parents for their minor children (I hope everyone’s estate plan includes a properly drafted designation of who will be the “backup” parents to our minor children should the unthinkable happen to us). The yearly review and update is by far the most critical party of every estate plan.


As it turns out, the yearly review and update is also the most overlooked part too. Many will recall James Gandolfini’s estate (the actor who played Tony Soprano) and his untimely death at age 51, which resulted in 80% of his estate going to taxes, rather than to his 9-month old daughter as Mr. Gandolfini has intended. Since Mr. Gandolfini failed to do a yearly review and update of his estate plan once his career, and his income, took off, his estate plan sadly failed to effectuate his intentions.

Another example of the adverse effects of avoiding a yearly review and update is very near and dear to my heart. My mother and father went through a messy divorce back in the 1980’s. My mother ended up moving to the east coast to be near her support network of friends and family. For a brief period of time, right after my parents’ divorce, mother became estranged from me and my two brothers. During this period of time, mother drafted a will stating, “my three sons shall take nothing hereunder for reasons they know best.” As time heals all wounds, my brothers and I reconciled with our mother a few years later.

Fast forward 15 years. My brothers and I married and gave mom wonderful grandchildren whom she loved dearly. In July of 2011, mother suddenly died of congestive heart failure at age 67. As it turned out, she never updated her will when she reconciled with me and my brothers over 18 years ago, and she never updated her will when she became a grandmother over 13 years ago. To make matters worse, mom never told her support network back east that she reconciled with her sons.

While mother’s estate was not rich with millions in cash like James Gandolfini, it was rich with countless pictures and relics from my childhood. Pictures and relics I will never be able to pass to my children because mother’s support network remains committed to perpetuating what they believed to be mother intentions as stated in her will. They refuse, and continue to refuse, to hand over a single picture to me or my brothers.

Many important lessons emerge from the estates of James Gandolfini and my mother. But, the most important lesson is to review and update your estate plan… often! I recommend at least every year. In the journey of life our estate planning needs will invariably change. We marry and divorce, have children and grandchildren, acquire wealth and lose it too, and people pass on– each of these events trigger the necessity for review of our estate plans.

After all, isn’t the peace-of-mind and security that comes from a well-planned and up-to-date estate plan the ultimate legacy for our loved ones?

Elliott H. Stone is an estate planning attorney in Temecula.  (951) 704-7800