When some people think about wills and estate planning, they conjure up images of Dynasty-esque plot lines where spoiled children plot and pander for their parents' fortune. Or perhaps, as Busta Rhymes immortalized in song, the saying "Mo money, Mo problems.” However, it turns out that everyone should consider estate planning as a means to prepare for their financial future, regardless of how many commas (if any) you have in your bank account. Why it may seem morose to plan ahead for your death, preparation is the best way to assuage any of your worries or fears.
I unleashed my inner Barbara Walters on estate planner Robert K. to glean professional advice on this important topic. Robert K , an estate planner and trusts and estates attorney from South Florida, has been helping families prepare for their financial future through estate planning for over 30 years. Big or small, he's counseled them all on wills, estate planning, and planning for retirement and other goals such as reduced taxes and protection from creditors. Be sure to check out my interview with Robert K below:
KCL: If you don't have much money or other assets, do you really need a will? What if I'm single and don't have any children?
Robert K: If you are single, don't have kids, and are willing to live with the arrangements set forth in the State Statutes for those who die without a will, you probably don't need one. However, if you have minor children, then you'll want to name a guardian to care for them in a will. If you have children who are 18 or older and you die without a will, these children will normally receive your property outright—this may not be a good thing because sometimes even grown children are unable to appropriately manage such a responsibility.
KCL: How much does it typically cost to have an attorney draft a will?
Robert K: Fees vary considerably depending on the complexity and what the client wants to accomplish. Some lawyers do simple wills for several hundred dollars. There are other documents that need to be considered as well, such as a Health Care Surrogate, if you are unable to make medical decisions, a Durable Power of Attorney, if you are unable to handle your finances, and a Living Will to avoid artificially extending your life when you are near death. Typically, small local law firms or sole practitioners will charge less than large, national law firms.
KCL: What about those DIY legal websites that allow lay people to make their own wills by essentially filling in the blanks on form documents? Can I really write my own will? Is this a good idea for people on a tight budget?
Robert K: Yes, it's true—you can draft your own will using one of these programs. But I strongly caution against it. I've seen many of these DIY wills declared void by the Courts because they were not executed properly with witnesses, etc. When you use an attorney, you reduce the risk of such mistakes that may ultimately render your will invalid.
KCL: Not to be morose, but if I were to unexpectedly pass away without a will, who would get my money, property and most importantly—my prized coupon binder?
Robert K: If you don't have a will, your assets are split up among your heirs based upon the laws of the state where you reside. For example, 50 percent to the spouse with the remainder split equally among the children. If you have no heirs (parents, kids, siblings, etc.), your property will normally go to the state.
KCL: If a loved one passes away and leaves me money or property in their will, how do I go about claiming my "inheritance?"
Robert K: You would normally receive court documents during the probate process and sign a Receipt upon the transfer of the property to you.
KCL: On the flip-side of things, what happens when someone dies with significant debt and no assets? Does their debt just magically disappear or does another person "inherit" their bills?
Robert K: In general, if you are the only person responsible for a debt and you die without assets, the debt is extinguished.
KCL: I was raised not to talk about money. How do I tactfully suggest to my aging parents that they should make a will without coming across like I'm expecting a handout?
Robert K: Estate planning is ultimately about family dynamics and property. Planning for your future and the future of your loved ones should be taken seriously. As such, an open line of communication with your parents and other loved ones is crucial. Also, remember that a will is not just a vehicle to dole out money and property upon one's death. It is also a key vehicle for retirement, tax, and asset protection planning. You could try framing the issue that way when you speak to your parents.
The information provided in this article is no substitute for legal advice. If you want to draft a will or other estate planning documents, consult with an experienced lawyer who specializes in estate planning and is well versed in the laws of your state.