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By Valerie S. Johnson
Wills and End-of-Life Issues
Many people do not want to confront the inevitable but face it, you’re going to pass away, kick the bucket, expire, shuffle off this mortal coil or die…someday. If you do nothing to prepare for the legal niceties, here’s what happens: the people you want to get your money and possessions won’t. This can mean that your family might not be adequately provided for. It will almost always mean that you’ll cause a lot of headache and extra expenses for whomever you leave behind. Is that what you really want to do?
Even if you think you do not own a lot, or you believe (perhaps wrongly) that it’s obvious that your spouse and kids will inherit it all, you are doing everyone a great disservice when you don’t place your wants into legal documents. Without a will, you die “intestate.” While that doesn’t mean you have some awful gastrointestinal disease, it does mean that the state is going to decide what happens to your stuff and your kids. Oh, and by the way, it’s going to cost you (technically, your estate, which is whatever money and assets you have left on that fateful day) a lot more in fees, time and trouble than if you had just bothered to sign some basic documents.
When it comes to spending money on wills and other end-of-life documents, you have two choices: you can do it yourself or you can pay a lawyer. Below are some tips for each approach.
You may be able to be your own lawyer. There are plenty of documents and information available in libraries and on the Internet for free or a small fee. If you are going to use a prepared form, you must make absolutely sure of at least one detail: will the document and all its provisions be valid in the state where you live (your “domicile”)? This is critical because each state has different laws. Something as simple as not having your signature notarized could cause your entire will to be declared invalid. Are you willing to risk that your documents are not the most up-to-date versions?
Hire A Wills and Trusts Lawyer
When hiring an attorney, it’s very important to choose one who specializes in wills and trusts or estate law. You brother’s divorce attorney may not be the best choice to handle the complex revocable living trust that you want to set up.
While we all want to work with someone experienced, don’t go to the oldest, grandfatherly-type lawyer, even if he is the senior partner in the firm. Why? You want a younger lawyer — someone who has a better chance of outliving you. Wouldn’t you prefer that the lawyer who understood your wishes and prepared your will while you were still breathing is around at the crucial time when it all really matters?
As with most areas of law, lawyers have different ways of charging for their services. To help keep those costs down, prepare yourself as thoroughly as possible before you set foot in an attorney’s office. Sit down, have a strong drink and ask yourself these questions:
1. What do I own? Don’t forget houses, cars, bank accounts, investments, etc.
2. Who do I want to get these things?
3. Do I want any restraints, such as the children can’t get the money until they are 25?
4. Do I want to restrict how people spend my money, such as it must be used only to fund the kids’ college educations?
5. Whom do I want to name as a guardian for my minor children?
6. Whom do I want to name as executor of my will or trustee of my trust? That person gets the thankless job of organizing the paperwork, corresponding with the courts and dealing with your heirs (or the people who think they should be your heirs).
7. What do I want to happen to me in a Terri Schiavo-type situation?
8. Who do I want to make health care decisions for me when I can’t?
9. Do I want to donate any organs or my body to science?
10. What kind of funeral arrangements do I want?
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? The clearer idea you have of what you want, the quicker and easier (read: less expensive) it will be for the lawyer to transpose your wishes into legally binding documents.
Once you have signed your life away, you need to review these documents periodically. Getting divorced? The states differ on what the effect is vis-a-vis your ex-spouse. Getting married? Don’t forget to change the beneficiary on your 401(k) plan. And remember — where there’s a will, there’s a…relative.