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"Who Needs a Will?" by Julie Jason

Originally published: Aug. 26, 2022 (distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication)

Since August is National Make a Will Month, it is a good time to focus on legacy issues, as well as the best method for distributing your estate to your heirs. 

     Let's start with wills. The majority of Americans don't have one. According to Caring.com's 2022 Estate Planning and Wills survey of more than 2,600 American adults (tinyurl.com/5fs4aure), only 33% said they had a will or living trust. 

     It's time to change that. 

     If, like most people, you don't have a will, I'll guess that creating one is not a top-of-the-mind, "let's-get-it-done-now" priority for you -- or for anyone who doesn't want to face the inevitability of the end of life. 

     Well, that can be a mistake. 

     Without a will, the intestate laws of your state of residence control how your assets flow to heirs. As the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) explains, if you don't have a will or other transfer documents in place, "a court will go through an often lengthy legal process to determine your rightful heirs." FINRA also points out that each state has its own "'statutory will' that decides who gets what when it comes to your assets" (tinyurl.com/2vxkrmwd).

     So let me make this easy for you. Instead of thinking about dying and the effect that will have on your family, focus on your "stuff " -- your assets. 

     First, prepare a list of everything you own. Brokerage accounts, bank accounts, real estate, art, cars, 401(k)s, IRAs, jewelry, furnishings ... anything you own. 

     Second, check the "titling" of the assets. This calls for actually looking at documents that tell you 1) who owns the asset, and 2) what happens to the asset when you die. 

     Get together copies of all relevant documents that show ownership. Is the asset in your name alone, in the name of a trust or other entity, in the name of you and your spouse jointly, or in a "transfer on death" (TOD) form?

     Look at beneficiary designation forms for your 401(k)s, IRAs and TOD accounts. These designations -- not your will -- determine who inherits these assets.

     Third, if you own real estate, review a copy of the deed to check titling. Note that in some states, your deed could be a TOD deed that will avoid probate (e.g., not in my home state of Connecticut). 

     Fourth, add together the value of your assets. If the dollar amount is considerable, you will likely want to retain an attorney for estate and tax planning. 

     On the other hand, if the total is modest and you own no real estate, you may want to review your holdings to see whether they can (or should) pass through non-probate transfers, such as TOD accounts. While you might want to fly solo without an attorney, it's always best to get an attorney on your side to prepare a will and estate plan for you, even if you don't think there is much to pass on. 

     Next, research estate planning attorneys in your community. The best way is to contact the local bar association, which will likely have a trust and estates committee. You can ask for a list of committee members to interview. 

     No matter your situation (if you do or don't have a will), it's a good idea to do this type of review on your own once a year, and perhaps every three years with your attorney. Things change over time. You acquire assets or sell them, and family structure also changes (births, deaths, adoptions, marriages and so on). 

     The bottom line is this: I highly recommend that you have a will drafted by an attorney you trust, and that you review your assets and estate plan on a regular basis. 

     If you have any questions on this topic or others, send me an email (readers@juliejason.com). 

To read Julie Jason's books, go to: https://juliejason.com/author/julies-books.