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Learn... Plan... Protect Your Estate

Steps to Build Plan
  Step 1 - Organize documents
  Step 2 - Get educated
  Step 3 - Inventory
  Step 4 - Determine goals
  Step 5 - Develop plan
  Step 6 - Review plan
  Step 7 - Take action
  Step 8 - Get help
Estate Plan Items
  Death Will
  Power of Attorney
  Health Care Directive
  Living Will
  Charitable Giving
  Asset Distribution
  Burial Instructions
Create your (death) will

A will is a legal document that tells the world, the court system, and your heirs how you want important issues to be handled after you die. It dictates what assets should be given to whom, what to do with your remaining property (sell it, give it to charity, use it to pay debts), who will care for your minor children as their legal guardian and who will act as executor to carry out your instructions.

If you don't have a will when you die, your state's laws will provide a "will" for you and things may not turn out as you would have wanted. The judge will make important decisions for you based on the rules in your state. Among them are:

  • Whom your assets will go to. In most states, if you die without a will, your assets will go to your spouse, then your children (or some combination of the two), then parents, siblings and on down the line. For people who aren't married, this could be bad news, especially if you have a signficant other because they will almost certainly have no rights and receive nothing.
  • Who will manage the assets. Should you and your spouse die without a will, your assets will go to your children. These assets, however, will be managed by someone not of your choosing. The court-appointed financial custodian will make all of the decisions. The court also will select a guardian for your children, with little or no prior knowledge of the relationships in your family.

Most wills include the following:

  • The name of your executor -- the person you've asked to carry out your wishes after you've died
  • Directions for payment of debts and taxes
  • Specific division of certain property (optional)
  • Distribution of all remaining property
  • The name of a guardian or guardians who will care for any minor children

A will can be kept simple and need not cost much to prepare. The simplest, albeit the easiest to challenge (as a forgery), is to write down your instructions. Make sure you have this document witnessed, and notarized. A second way, and still simple, is to purchase one of the many will creation software packages on the market. You should find the software very easy to use, and it will identify all the forms that you might need. Finally, and especially if you have complex instructions or a large estate, please consult an attorney.

Once you have created your will, it is important that you take the necessary steps to make your will a binding document. The following items represent the "musts and shoulds" associated with any will.

  • You must be at least 18 years of age (in Wyoming, you must be 19)
  • You must be of sound mind (mentally competent)
  • The document must state that it is your will
  • You must leave property to at least one beneficiary
  • The document should be typed or computer-printed. Twenty-five states still recognize handwritten wills, but they are subject to closer court scrutiny
  • You must sign and date your will with at least two witnesses present (Vermont requires three)

Store the original will in an accessible location, such as your home, and make this location known to your executor and spouse, if you have one. You also may want to store a copy in a safe-deposit box or leave it with your attorney.

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