Making a Will Now Can Prevent Confusion, Conflict Later

By State Senator Julie Lassa

It’s estimated that somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of American adults don’t have wills.  Many people think they are too young, that they don’t have enough assets, or that preparing a will involves too much hassle and expense.  Some think that state laws and the beneficiary designations on their life insurance policies will be enough to make sure their money and property end up in the right hands.  And some people just don’t want to contemplate their own mortality.

August is National Make-a-Will Month, so it’s an appropriate time to think about the importance of good estate planning.   If you don’t have a will, making one now will give you the peace of mind of knowing you have done what you can to minimize confusion, costs, and possible conflict for your loved ones once you’re gone.  If you’ve already made a will but you haven’t reviewed it in a while, this is a good time to make sure that it still reflects the current realities of your assets, your family situation, and your wishes.

If you die without a will, state law typically determines what happens to your assets.   A court will appoint a personal representative who will transfer your estate to your spouse or domestic partner, or split it between your spouse and children if you have children from outside your marriage.  If you have no spouse, domestic partner or children, the law specifies the order of which relatives would receive your assets, starting with parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and descendants of grandparents.  If you have no heirs that fit these categories, your assets would go to the state school fund.  If you don’t want your assets distributed this way, making a will is the best way to ensure your wishes are respected.

The court may have to make other decisions, too – such as who will be the guardian of your minor children, and who will manage your estate.   And it may be up to your surviving relatives to decide who ends up with any heirlooms, keepsakes, collectibles, and other items that may have more sentimental value than monetary worth.  As tight-knit as everyone may seem at your family reunion, squabbles about who gets what can crop up even within the closest of families.  If your estate ends up in probate court, much of it may be liquidated and used to pay for legal expenses, and the resulting conflict may cause hurt feelings between your loved ones.   It’s well worth making an effort now to prevent that from happening.

There are do-it-yourself options available, and if your estate is very simple they may work for you.  A quick Internet search will turn up on-line services that can help you prepare a will and other directives such as durable power of attorney or health care directives.  The cost is typically low, but if your estate is more complex – if you’ve had multiple marriages, inherited wealth, or have family complications, for instance – it’s wise to seek the advice of an estate attorney.  They can help you foresee issues you might not be aware of and avoid the very kinds of problems you’re writing a will to prevent.

The Wisconsin Bar Association website, www.wisbar.org, contains a wealth of information about Wisconsin estate law and how to go about making your will.  There’s also an attorney search feature that can help you find legal assistance with estate planning.   Make or review your will now – you’ll feel better knowing your wishes will be respected and your loved ones will be treated as you wish.