It’s a lot simpler to earn money during your lifetime than it is to pass it on to others when you die. That’s because laws are written by legislatures filled with lawyers, who are seemingly incapable of composing anything in plain, unambiguous language, which, of course, provides plenty of employment for other lawyers.
I am not a lawyer, and nothing I say here is meant to be legal advice, nor should it be taken as such. They are opinions based on experience, and intended solely to prod you into thinking about a subject you may rather not think about.
For example, everybody should have a will.
Doesn’t matter how much or how little property you own. There can be some little thing — an old car or a boat, maybe, or a small bank account — that has no clear provision for someone to claim it.
That can force whoever is left to clean up after you into an interminable maze of red tape, blind alleys, contradictory directions from bureaucrats, impenetrable computer systems, lawyers’ offices and maybe a psychologist’s couch.
A simple will might spare someone that agony. Might.
A will doesn’t have to be complicated, filled with repetitive, meaningless legalese — unless, of course, a lawyer does it. You can write your own will, even in your own handwriting, in which case it doesn’t have to be witnessed. (If it’s typed, it has to be witnessed.)
But it’s tricky. You have to follow the rules, which can be found online in the state probate laws. If you die without a will (intestate), state law dictates who gets what.
You should name an executor, the person to carry out your wishes and file the will for probate, which means the court’s approving its validity. (In some states a lawyer is required to do this, even if your executor is capable.)
If you want to use a lawyer, save yourself some time and money by writing out in advance everything you want in your will, including contingencies, like what happens if someone named in the will dies before or at the same time you do.
You can always change or add to a will.
Some people would benefit by having a revocable living trust, which enables you to continue to control your assets (including your home) and directs how they should be distributed when you die. You can change or revoke it at any time.
One advantage: it avoids probate fees. It might save on estate taxes, especially if it’s what’s called a generation-skipping trust, which names grandchildren as the beneficiaries instead of their parents.
Don’t try to write your own trust. But be alert — some lawyers download a generic form, filled in by an aide, and it might contain verbiage you didn’t ask for and don’t want. Not all lawyers are equally competent in the areas of wills and trusts.