Wills important part of family planning

Monday, March 22, 2010

You’re going to die. Maybe not today, and probably not tomorrow, but some day you will die. You’ll leave everything you own behind: the house, the car, the book collection, the fine china, the sparkling jewelry. All of it will linger long after you’re gone. And that’s why you should consider drafting a will.

“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who should not have a will,” says Lawrence attorney David Brown. “On the assumption that someone wants to take control of their property upon death, they should have a will.”

But according to the latest data, more than half of Americans have yet to make a will. And without a will, when you die, state law will determine what happens to all of the stuff you’ve accumulated while alive. For married people, this means your spouse will inherit it all. And for single folks, your parents and siblings will acquire everything.

“Rarely do people want everything they own to go to one person,” Brown says.

Still, most people don’t go to the trouble of making sure that doesn’t happen. The biggest reason for not writing a will? Not enough stuff — an assessment that might be incorrect. People wrongly assume they have nothing worth holding onto, nothing worth giving away. But parents, for instance, have a major incentive for making a will: children.

Who gets custody?

“For folks who have kids, wills are really important,” Brown says. “Wills can designate who will take care of the kids after death. Typically people have very specific ideas about that kind of thing. (But without a will) a judge who doesn’t know the child or the family or anything about what’s going on, will make that decision.”

That’s the reason Emily Neufeld Grant and her husband, Alan, decided to draft a will.

“We wrote our wills shortly after our son Cooper was born. And quite frankly, he was the impetus for finally making a will,” Grant says. “Once we had Cooper, it became very important to make a will so we could establish guardianship for Cooper if we both died at the same time.”

Sentimental touches

Among your possessions — family relics, record collections, photos — some will resonate with the heart and not the pocketbook. And a will can allow you to cherry-pick who inherits those things.

According to Brown, a will can cover just about everything, even the emotional. With a will, you can leave behind gifts and messages to loved ones to sort of soften the blow.

“(In our wills) we also included provisions to make specific gifts to our nieces and nephew, to charities that we support, to scholarship funds,” Grant says. “They’re nothing huge, but we both have life insurance policies, and we actually enjoyed thinking about ways to use insurance proceeds to help important people and charities in our lives.”

Dangers of doing it yourself

When creating a will, the drafting process and content must align with state laws. It is possible to assemble a will without legal consul, but it’s important to be precise: There are various pitfalls in the drafting process that might cancel the will out. For example, in Kansas, a will needs two witnesses — not beneficiaries — in order to be recognized in court. Witnessing must occur simultaneously. And the will has to be signed by its author, or it will be excluded in court.

“People go into it thinking, ‘This is really simple,’” Brown says. “But they really don’t understand what the terminology means.”

When making a will, it’s easy to trip over the legal mumbo-jumbo as some of the terms are shrouded in Latin: Per stirpes, for example, refers to when an estate is distributed to each branch of the family evenly. These terms can be hard to follow.

For those who are overwhelmed or intimidated by the legal jargon, the easiest — and perhaps the wisest — way to avoid confusion is to hire an attorney.

Once you’ve worked with an attorney on drafting your will, it’s important to review it at least every five years. Reviewing and revising a will is paramount to ensuring that a will is in conformity with state law. And updating your will makes sure that your desires, if they’ve changed, will still be honored.