Wills and Estate Planning
A Will is a legal instrument used to designate beneficiaries to receive your property and personal belongings in the event of your death. Oftentimes referred to as a Last Will and Testament, this document is also used to appoint someone to administer the duties associated with handling your estate.
There are several variables for making a Will. Much will depend on your life circumstances and the size of your estate. In most cases, it is best to retain the services of an estate planning lawyer. This is of particular importance for people whose family dynamics are dysfunctional. If you think the dysfunction is bad now, just wait until a loved one dies.
Death has a tendency to bring out the best and worst in people. Family dysfunction can quickly escalate into all-out war if the decedent has not executed a Will. Even when a Will is properly executed, disgruntled or disinherited heirs can contest the Will. While the burden of proof rests with the individual contesting, this act can delay the probate process and add additional expenses to the estate.
Experts advise drafting your Will while you are in good health. Although you will have to periodically update your Last Will and Testament, it is wise to have one in place "just in case". Unfortunately, none of us know when our time will arrive. Procrastinating about estate planning can leave an enormous burden for your family in the event your time arrives earlier than you anticipated.
Drafting a Will is not difficult, but does require some time. You will need to make decisions about who will receive your property and who will handle your estate. If you have children, provisions should be made for guardianship.
Executing a Last Will and Testament does not keep your estate out of probate. There are measures you can take to keep assets out of probate by designating transfer-on-death (TOD) and payable-on-death (POD) beneficiaries. There is generally a 45-day waiting period for these transfers to take place. Depending on state laws, tax assessor forms must be filed declaring the date-of-death value. Funds cannot be distributed until the forms are stamped by the assessor's office.
The only way to avoid probate is to execute a living trust. There are two types of living trusts – revocable and irrevocable. Revocable can be changed throughout the person's lifetime; whereas irrevocable trusts cannot be altered once they are established.
Some people prefer to execute a Will without legal assistance. Many office supply stores sell "Do-It-Yourself" Will kits. Forms can be downloaded online for free or a nominal fee. Quicken, a popular software company, offers Will-making software. As long as self-made Wills are witnessed and notarized, they will usually be accepted through the probate court.
Only you can decide whether to retain the services of a probate attorney or draft a Will on your own. If your estate is small and uncomplicated, a simple Will may be all that is required. If you own considerable assets and have children or a spouse to look after, it is probably best to hire a professional.
Once your Will is executed, it should be placed in safekeeping. It is a good idea to store the original Will in a safe deposit box at the bank. Others prefer keeping their Will in a home safe. Regardless of where you store your Will, it is important to inform others where it is located. Last, but not least, provide a copy to your designated estate administrator.
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