Who Needs a Will?

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A: You do.

Some people think that wills are for folks with lots of money and property.  The truth is, if you want to make sure a loved one gets your assets when you die, you should make your wishes legally binding — and the sooner, the better. Otherwise, your estate could be tied up in probate court for years with no guarantee your wishes will be honored. Case in point: Prince’s estate is still unsettled.

A person who dies without a will is said to have died intestate.  That means that any property and assets you had (and are not jointly owned) will be distributed per the decision of a probate court. The court’s agents will decide who will get your assets, according to your state’s laws. However, if you write a will and name a capable executor to carry out your wishes, you can streamline the process for your heirs and insure your plans are followed.

Some financial arrangements, like joint bank accounts or property held or occupied in common by married couples automatically give a survivor control of assets.  In some states, it’s possible to have transfer on death provisions for accounts and properties. These provisions pass the assets to people you designate without going through probate. If you want to rely on these provisions, be sure to consult your state’s laws and an estate attorney.

Without these provisions or a will, everything is divided according to monetary value among the people your state laws designate as heirs. This means that real estate might be sold rather than passed along and your family members may end up fighting about who gets what.  If you and your partner are not married or if you are a same-sex married couple living in a state that still doesn’t recognize its legality, then deliberate legal provisions are absolutely necessary.  Wills, trusts, and transfers protect the legacy of these relationships. They can also uphold your choice to leave part of your estate to a friend or to an organization.

A will can also structure an inheritance using trusts. Incentive trusts distribute funds when a stipulation, such as college graduation, is met.  Staggered trusts distribute beneficiaries’ inheritance when they reach specific ages. You can even prevent someone from getting any part of your legacy by stating this in a will.

Possibilities for wills, transfers, and trusts vary by state, so it’s important that you seek advice from a lawyer.  Veterans or people with limited incomes may be eligible for free legal help.

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