Thinking about your eventual death is a difficult thing to do and one of the main reasons that a lot of people don't set up a will. However, if you don’t have one as part of an estate plan, you can almost guarantee your loved ones more stress and a lot more time spent handling your affairs after you are gone, instead of giving them more time to grieve and celebrate your life.
Is there a difference between a will and an estate plan? The quick answer is yes. Despite some people using them interchangeably to describe their plan for after they are gone, a will is really just the base part of a complete estate plan. Even if you aren’t nearing the end of your life, it can be important to have a plan in case the unthinkable happens.
Let’s start with what is a will and what it can and cannot do. A will is just a written legal document that gives light to what you want done with your things after you are gone. A well drafted will should unambiguously explain who will (or will not) get what out of your assets and possessions at the time of your passing as well as who will have custody of any minor children. If you don't have a will at the time of your death or if your will is found invalid, you die intestate. If you die intestate, all of your assets are distributed by the court through a state’s inheritance laws. This can be costly and time consuming in a difficult time for your family.
There are countless things to consider when estate planning, so we’ll just gloss the surface of a few in this blog and delve deeper in later posts. You’ll have to put together a list of assets, like life insurance policy documents, deeds & mortgages, account numbers & institutions, and other valuables (cars, family heirlooms, jewelry) - just to name a few. You and your attorney will also establish burial plans, funeral/memorial arrangements, and plot information if you already have one selected. If married, the spouses must decide on a joint will or two separate wills. There are advantages and disadvantages to both; although, joint wills are generally not preferred because of the inability to change things once one spouse dies. One last important thing to start thinking about is who you want to name as executor of your will. This person will be the one to handle things in the name of your estate after you are gone. Some people name a spouse or children, but, while convenient, sometimes it is not the best choice.
A will is not a tool to keep your estate out of probate; rather, a will ensures everything will go to probate because a probate judge must assess the validity of your will. Think of a will as a checklist for a probate judge to follow in making sure things get where they need to go. Additionally, a will is a one shot thing: once you die, your things are immediately given to those you chose all at once. There is no way to create a periodic distribution of assets in a will; your beneficiaries inherit it in one lump sum. For alternative distribution types, you would also need a trust. This is why a will is only the base part of a comprehensive estate plan.
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