Estate Elements

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Everyone needs at least a simple will that outlines how assets are to be distributed. ?If you die and have no will, state law says who will receive your assets, who may be your executor, and who may be the guardian of your minor children,? says Mardyth Pollard, a Springfield, Ill., attorney whose expertise is elder law. ?It will be costly to settle your estate and frustrating for your loved ones.?

Pollard does not recommend a do-it-yourself will because laws vary from state to state and do-it-yourself wills are too generic to be of much use. The best way to use a do-it-yourself will, Pollard says, is as a tool to get your plans and facts in place before going to see an attorney for the actual documents.

Titles. Make sure you know how title is held to your assets, such as your home, and that the titles are correct. Are your assets transferable at the time of your death, for example, or are they held in joint tenancy? It may be that you want to retain full ownership of your assets until your death.

Beneficiaries. Who are the beneficiaries on any assets that do not pass through the will, namely Individual Retirement Accounts, annuities and life insurance policies? Regardless of who is named in your will, the designated beneficiaries on the assets will receive the proceeds.

Living Trust. Look closely at recent changes to your state?s law before going to the expense of writing a living trust to avoid probate, protect privacy or to save money on attorney fees and taxes. ?Persons who may want to look more closely at creating a living trust have more than $1 million in assets, (have) a child with special needs or need to distribute assets in a second marriage,? Pollard says.

There are more streamlined ways to close an estate, such as the small estate affidavit and independent administration of probate. The small estate affidavit is a procedure whereby probate is avoided as long as the deceased had a probate estate worth less than $100,000 and did not own real estate.