What to Know About Wills

by Tom Streissguth
A will protects your family and your estate.

A will protects your family and your estate.

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A will divides your estate among your heirs after your death, and -- regardless of your financial situation or even age -- can help your family and heirs avoid costly legal tangles and save your estate a considerable amount of money.

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Probate Court

A will may help your family avoid legal complications in the event of your death. The will is a statement of how you wish your estate -- including your money, investments and property -- to be divided among your heirs. A will can also determine who will have custody of your minor children. If you die without a will, the division of assets as well as guardianship of your children is determined by the court system in the state of your residence. In addition, the state may claim part of your estate, either because it is owed fees or taxes, or because it cannot locate any legal heirs.

Executors

You may name an executor to carry out the terms of the will after your death. If you die “intestate,” or without a valid will, the probate court will name the executor, and this individual will have control over your estate and how it is divided. This can mean administrative fees charged to your estate, and complications among your heirs over the decisions the executor makes.

Attorneys

Lawyers specializing in estate or family law are experienced in drawing up wills, and can have them filed and recorded with the clerk of court. A lawyer can ensure that the will conforms with state law, is legally signed and witnessed, and will be accepted as valid by the state. A lawyer can also help you determine how your financial assets, such as pension accounts, IRAs and life insurance benefits, will be transferred.

Wills and Trusts

A will is useful even if you have set up a trust, an entity that holds your assets in your name and allows you to keep inheritance taxes to a minimum. A will can allow the executor of your will to ensure that all of the assets you intended to assign to the trust are placed there. If you have assets that are not placed in the trust -- a process known as “titling” -- they will be subject to probate court, where a judge will decide how to distribute those assets among your heirs.