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2. Your Beneficiaries
3. Property Ownership
5. Your Executor
6. Estate Planning
7. Preparing the Draft of Your Will
8. Preparing Your Final Wil
9. Storing and Copying Your Will
10. Changing or Revoking Your Will
11. Going Further
· Will Forms
· Beneficiary Worksheet
· Additional Specific Gifts
· Self-Proving Affidavits
· Will Codicil Form
This book is for people who want to make a basic will -- nothing complex, no frills, just a valid will that does the job. It is for people who want to leave their property outright (no strings attached) when they die. The key to doing this is simplicity.
If you've bought this book, you probably know that a will is a legal document where you specify which people and organizations will receive which of your property after you die. You may also use a will to name an adult to be responsible for your minor children's personal care and finances.
Following the step-by-step instructions in this book, you can create your own basic will that:
By and large, people who need only a basic will are under age 50 and own property worth less than the threshold limit for federal estate taxes -- $1 million in 2003, $1.5 million in 2004, rising to $3.5 million in 2009. (See Chapter 6, Section C for a discussion of estate taxes.) As one grows older, a basic will may not be the most economical and efficient method for passing your property. Certain types of more sophisticated planning may be desirable, which generally aren't called for with younger people. (See Section B, below, for more on this topic.)
This book contains five sample will forms that are valid in every state and Washington, DC, with the exception of Louisiana (which has unique laws governing wills). These will forms have been carefully prepared to keep your work to a manageable amount.
You've probably heard of probate and know it has a dubious reputation (well earned). In probate, the will of a person who died is filed with a court, and property is located and gathered by an estate executor. Debts and taxes still owed are paid, and the remaining property is distributed as the will directs. Most property passed by will must go through probate.
Probate certainly has drawbacks. It can be lengthy, commonly taking a year or more. It can also be expensive, normally requiring the services of lawyers and perhaps other specialists. However fees for these experts are determined (they vary by state), payment will always come out of property you intended for family and friends.
The good news is that people whose situations warrant a basic will have little reason to concern themselves now with probate. People using basic wills are usually relatively young. Their real concern is to make legal arrangements for the statistically unlikely event that they die suddenly and unexpectedly. Yes, with a will there is a risk that their property may end up in probate, but accepting that risk is, for most younger people, preferable to creating complex and often costly estate plans many years or decades before they're likely to come into play. (See Chapter 6, Sections A and B for more about probate and common ways to avoid it.)
Similarly, because most young people don't have large amounts of property, they can usually safely wait to consider whether they need to make plans to save on federal estate taxes.
If your net worth is $1 million or more. Your estate consists of the net worth of all the property you own when you die, in whatever form of ownership. Net worth is the market value of the property, less any amounts owed on it. While all estates are (theoretically) subject to federal estate taxes, the personal estate tax exemption allows a set dollar amount of property to be transferred free of tax. For 2003, the exempt amount is $1 million, and for 2004, it is $1.5 million; this amount will gradually rise to $3.5 million for 2009. I use the term estate tax threshold to mean the range of exempt amounts, from $1 million to $3.5 million.
People with estates above the estate tax threshold should consider estate planning beyond the scope of this book. If your property, whether individually or combined as a couple, exceeds the estate tax threshold, you may be able to save large amounts of money from the tax man by using more sophisticated planning methods than preparing a basic will. The rudiments of estate tax planning are discussed in Chapter 6, Section C.
Let me reassure you here at the start that preparing a basic will is not hard for most people. Some lawyers routinely use scare tactics designed to frighten people into believing that preparing a will is such a complex, technical process that no non-lawyer dare risk it. This is nonsense. Pause for a moment and consider what a basic will actually is and does. In essence, a basic will is a document used to transfer your own property to whomever you want to get it after you die. What's hard about that? Indeed, in most societies, including other Western cultures, the will-writing and transfer process is routine, without the necessity for lawyers or courts.
This book, and the will forms it contains, will enable most readers to prepare a basic will without having to pay for a lawyer. The heart of the will-making process consists of deciding who gets what. If your desires are clear and uncomplicated, you can make your own will.
Take a common situation, where both members of a married couple want to leave their property to the other spouse. If that spouse isn't alive, then all property is to be divided equally between their kids. What the couple wants can be said in two sentences. Why should accomplishing their straight forward desire in a valid legal document be so difficult that an expert must be paid? This book is based on the truth that there's no reason to involve a costly expert if a will writer's desires are direct and uncomplicated.
Now let's look at a few real-life situations where a basic will from this book will work fine.
Example 1: Nyrit and Jerome, in their 30s, own a home (although it sometimes seems that the bank owns it), two cars and some savings. Their net estate totals $170,000. They have one child, Mark, age 12. Each prepares a will leaving all his or her property to the other. If they die together, Mark is to receive all their property. Nyrit and Jerome agree that Nyrit's brother Iraz will care for Mark and manage the property until Mark turns 18.
Example 2: Sam, a widower, owns property with a net worth of $360,000. He has three adult children. He creates a will leaving all his property equally to his children. He specifies that if any child dies before him, that child's share is to be divided equally between the surviving children.
Example 3: Barbara is a single mother with two teenaged children and an estate totalling $95,000. Though she's not on amicable terms with her ex-husband, she does admit he tries to be a decent father ("within his self-absorbed limits") and does pay child support payments more or less on time. Barbara prepares a will leaving all her property equally to her children. Because Barbara does not want her husband managing money left to her children if she dies, she uses her will to appoint her sister Debbie to manage each child's property until that child turns 18.
In the face of the intense emotional force and mystery of death, preparing a will may seem minor. Although this is not a philosophical or spiritual book, I want to acknowledge that the emotional realities involved in a death are profound. But however one chooses to deal with death spiritually or philosophically, there are practical issues that must be confronted. A will is the easiest way to handle the most important of these practical matters, transferring property.
It's also important to acknowledge that the process of writing a will is more than a practical necessity. Deciding who you want to receive your property after your death can be a significant process. The peace of mind one achieves by preparing a will -- having one thing on that nagging list of "really should be dones" behind you -- is very real and satisfying. Certainly it's no denigration of death, or life, for you to be concerned with the wisest and most desirable distribution of your property.
In spite of this, the unfortunate reality is that many Americans still don't have a will. Why not? No one knows for sure, but here are my hunches: