Very few people get excited about estate planning. After all, it is a blatant reminder that none of us are immortal. However, as a parent, it is one of the most important things you will ever do.
A parent’s will does two very important things; it makes sure your child will be cared for by someone of your choosing and it makes sure your child will have his or her financial needs met.
Not Being Prepared
If you don’t plan ahead, there are various aspects of your life – and the lives of your family members – that will be determined by someone else.
If you die without a will, the state will intervene without regard to your wishes or your heir’s needs.
If you don’t document how you want your money distributed, the state will probably only give one-third or one-half to your spouse. The rest will be given to your children. On the surface, this may sound like a satisfactory arrangement. However, the children’s assets will be managed by a state-appointed administrator who will control the money until the children reach the age of 18. Your spouse won’t be able to use that money to raise the children. And to make matters worse, the state-appointed administrator will charge a fee for the service!
Without a will, you have no say in who will raise your minor children. If you are a single parent or your spouse also dies, the court will appoint someone as guardian.
No one is immune to aging and sudden health crises. With those situations come important medical decisions. A living will – or advance medical directive – outlines your wishes for life-sustaining medical intervention if you become terminally ill or unable to communicate. Without a living will, your final wishes won’t be known or adhered to.
Power or Attorney
Likewise, there will come a time when we are unable to deal with the business of life – paying bills, managing investments, making key financial decisions. It is important to have a power of attorney. If you wait until it is too late to deal with assigning an agent, the court will appoint one for you. There is a fee for this service (in addition to the cost of annual visits to court) and the service may not be preformed by someone you would choose.
Now is as good a time as any to get started writing your will. You can always amend your will later if you change your mind about a certain decision or a relationship changes.
- To begin, make a list of all your assets, bank accounts, investments, real estate holdings, life insurance policies and personal properties.
- Make notations about who you want to get what and when.
- Appoint a guardian for your children.
- Select an alternate guardian in case your first choice is unwilling or unable.
- Decide if you would like someone other than the guardian to handle the assets you leave your children.
- Include a letter outlining how you would like your children raised and educated.
DIY Will or Help from an Attorney?
When it comes to actually writing your will, you have two options. You can consult self-help sources of information or you can hire an attorney. By doing it yourself, you will spend a lot less money, but you will spend a lot more time. If you choose the DIY route, note the following:
- In most states, the document must be typed or computer generated. Handwritten missives probably won’t be accepted.
- You must state somewhere in the document that it is your will.
- The document must be dated and signed.
- The document must be signed in the presence of at least two witnesses (some states require three).
- The witness must also sign the document.
- Most states do not require the document to be notarized.
- The document does not need to be recorded or registered with any type of government agency.
If you hire a lawyer, you can rest assured your will is an ironclad document that won’t be subjected to argument or scrutiny. A nice compromise between the two methods involves a DIY will that is reviewed by an attorney.
No matter who drafts the document make sure it is stored in a safe, yet somewhat obvious place. A safe deposit box at the bank is probably not a good place since there are rules about who can and can not access the contents.
Also, once your will has been made, discuss it with your heirs. This is the best way to avoid a disagreement once you are gone. This is also a good time to determine who you would like to handle your business affairs and medical decisions if you become incapacitated.
One you are gone, you are free from the drama and stress this world inflicts. However, you leave behind your loved ones who are still suffering from such burdens. Don’t make the situation worse by bequeathing a costly administrative nightmare to your loved ones.
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Guest author Denis Michelson works for a Clearwater probate attorney. The firm has helped thousands of families with their estate planning needs.