Family File Photo

Chap. (Capt) Chip Gunther accommodataes his sister, A.J. Gunther and mother, Anne Serdula, as they embrace him. Gunther was one of more than 70 Soldiers from the 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion who were welcomed home during a redeployment ceremony at the Post Field House Jan. 18. The Soldiers returned to Fort Lee after an 11-month tour in Afghanistan.

In recognition of National Estate Planning Awareness Week, which continues through Saturday, the Legal Assistance Office here wants military members, their families and others to understand what estate planning is and when and how it should be done.

It is estimated that greater than 56 percent of Americans do not have up-to-date estate plans to protect themselves and their families in the event of sickness, accidents or untimely death. If there are children involved or assets that would need to be taken care of, it is a good idea to create an estate plan.

“An estate plan is a term we use to cover taking care of all aspects of your assets or your affairs as you grow them in life, then in transitioning to death who will get them or take care of them,” said Kevin Fritz, deputy chief of the Client Services Division. “For example, if you are a parent, part of it is assigning the guardianship of your children to someone you trust in case of death. If you have rental homes or a business, it’s what happens to those properties after you die.”

Anyone can get started on an estate plan with a worksheet that’s available on the Legal Assistance Office website – www.cascom.army.mil/staff/sja/Info%20papers/FortLee-SJA-Will_Worksheet.PDF.  There also is an older estate planning questionnaire that is helpful: https://www.jagcnet.army.mil/Sites%5C%5CLegalAssistancePublic.nsf/0/50576E05C79F2535852580B2005EF1DD/%24File/Estate%20Planning%20Questionnaire%202002.pdf.

These documents will help individuals figure out their goals and objectives, and identify questions they may have for the legal office. They also explain the various documents that should be included in an estate plan and why.

“A will does not make a complete estate plan, as there are other documents needed,” Fritz emphasized. “There’s an advance medical directive or living will; a durable power of attorney for health care; and a durable power of attorney in case of incompetence. These documents are not required, but most people feel they need them to have their affairs in order.”

He added people should include beneficiary designations for life insurance and trust funds, possibly in the will; and an anatomical gift designation for donating organs after death.

He then moved on to another important step of estate planning: figuring out and inventorying everything you have.

“You have to know what you own,” Fritz said. “Like, for me, 10 years into my marriage, my wife goes into the safe and finds my life insurance policy that I took out when I was 17. Guess who the main beneficiaries were on it? My mom and my sister, as I had forgotten to change it and add my wife to it.

“When you think about it, you may have that house in California, rental property in Alaska, and stocks and bonds as well. So, all the stuff that goes into your estate needs to be accounted for in the plan.”

When it comes to beneficiaries, one needs to consider children or stepchildren, even from former marriages. Where will assets go if they’re not old enough to get it? Who will be their guardian if one or both parents pass away? Everyone and everything needs to be accounted for with specific instructions in an estate plan.

Individuals then make an appointment with legal to sit down with an attorney.

“We draft your will, the living will and all the other documents,” Fritz explained. “We may have to coordinate with some of your financial or insurance people. You have to bring in account numbers, real property descriptions … and the addresses of people you are giving guardianship to or will be an executor in your will. That information also is important if you’re executing a power of attorney as part of the process.”

The OSJA provides estate planning services free of charge to service members, retirees, and their dependents.

“Keep in mind that our office can prepare wills, powers of attorney and advance medical directives, but other topics we can only advise on,” said Tim Hamilton, chief of Client Services.

“For example, we can talk about estate taxes, but most folks don’t have to worry about that because their estates are too small to trigger that requirement,” he explained. “Anyone who is genuinely concerned about that subject probably has an estate large enough that we would strongly encourage them to seek a more experienced estate planning attorney. 

Military members and their families who already have an estate plan should take this time to review those documents as major life events can affect wills, executors and other people involved, and it may be time to add or subtract property and other valuables.

“All of this depends on where you are and what you have in life,” Fritz observed. “We can do codicils to wills to change an executor if your brother passes on, but there are certain things that can cause you to redo everything - like winning the lottery.

“I want to re-emphasize that you need to look at this after any life-altering event. Changes to estate plans are necessary if you get married, divorced, get a promotion or when the people in your life become ill,” Fritz concluded. “You either need to create a plan, or update one.”

For any questions about estate planning, military ID cardholders can contact the Legal Services Office at 804-765-1500 or visit cascom.army.mil/staff/sja/legalasst-1.htm for more information.