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Dying Without a Will

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Let's lay out the facts. Dying without a will makes your death harder on everyone around you. Not only does it increase the confusion of settling your estate, but it may also stress family members as they argue over who wants what--and who deserves it more. A will makes your wishes plain, simplifies your end-of-life plan, and helps friends and family cope with your loss.

What is a Will?

In reality, a will is not exactly as you see it so often represented on television or in movies. It's a document drafted by a lawyer, witnessed by two legal adults, and signed by the owner. A will isn't just for the elderly or the ill. Every day, people tragically lose their lives in the prime of life.

If you own anything at all, a will serves you and those around you. Charges for writing a will vary depending on your exact location, but they are typically one of the more simple legal documents you will hire a lawyer to draft during your life.

Though video wills are a very big fad as of this writing, remember that a traditional paper will must also accompany it. Otherwise, the video will is unlikely to meet the legal standard and could be declared invalid.

What is Probate?

Probate is a court proceeding that is entered into automatically if the total estate of the deceased exceeds a certain dollar value. The dollar value varies from state to state and can change over time. However, for those with less valuable estates, probate may be avoided almost entirely with a self-proving affidavit attached to a will. Probate court's purpose is to verify the will, if there is one present, and the inheritors of the decedent's assets. Executors of wills assist with distributing the assets to heirs, paying final expenses of the deceased such as taxes, and resolving the claims of creditors.

In general, probating a will is not a cheap way to go about settling an estate or avoiding family disputes. It may be necessary in some instances, but it is best to avoid long, drawn-out probate proceedings if at all possible.

What Happens if There is No Will?

If someone dies without a will, the result will depend on the composition of the family, friends, and loved ones. If you have no readily identifiable next of kin, the courts may search for them elsewhere. The ultimate heir may become a third cousin who has never heard of you. It may be a distant relative, an estranged spouse, or any other person in your past that has some claim to what you owned.

If there are many possible claims to your estate assets, things can get very messy. These battles are usually waged in court, long after your passing and can put stress on the family. It also tends to create bad memories and hard feelings among family members. A will keeps this from happening and assures your wishes are carried out.

Who Inherits What and When?

Without a valid will, who inherits what is entirely up to the courts. Perhaps your aunt gets your car and your grandmother gets your house. You owed both of them money and this is how the court settles it.

As far as when the assets are distributed, that's a difficult question. Timelines differ depending on the complexity of your particular estate. If the issues surrounding your estate are exceptionally complex, it may take months or years for your estate to be ironed out. A will, once verified, makes the process a snap. Though issues do occur on occasion after a will is verified, they are exceedingly rare. If a will is present, the estate can be processed before the seasons change.

Why You Want to Avoid Probate

Probate court is painfully expensive. While we dislike cutting down the end of a person's life to their finances and what they leave behind, in the end, that may wind up being the biggest concern of your loved ones. Whether you leave hundreds of thousands in riches or debt, it is up to them to clear up all the legal issues before your estate can be closed.

Lost time at work or with your extended family members puts pressure on those stuck in probate court. They're already mourning you. Don't make them mourn their free time, too.

For more information about estate planning, including Wills, trusts, and other estate planning instruments, consult with a knowledgeable and experienced estate planning attorney.

What is a Living Trust?

A living trust functions much like a will, though it locks the government and debtors from attacking the new funds. Instead of paying them directly to the beneficiary, the funds are kept in the name of the living trust. This may also save large estates from going to probate court, avoiding estate taxes in certain states, and keep significant funds from appearing in credit reports. This is especially helpful if your estate is to be a windfall for the beneficiary. A lawyer can help you learn the ways a living trust may benefit you more than a will.