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Wills: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Nearly six out of ten Americans do not have a will, including almost nine out of ten adults younger than 35, according to a recent survey by Findlaw.com, an online legal services and information company. If you're the parent of a young child, you can't afford to be among them  -- a simple truth that has added resonance since last year's terrorist attacks shook the nation. "We're all more keenly aware of our own mortality these days," says Mary Randolph, an editor with Nolo Press, a legal self-help publishing company in Berkeley, CA. "We're also thinking a lot more about our families, and how we can protect them."

Websites that specialize in do-it-yourself wills have seen much more traffic since September 11. Estate and family lawyers say their phones are ringing more frequently too. If you don't have a will, this is one time when it makes sense to jump on the bandwagon. The steps you need to take...

Contributing editor Diane Harris is coauthor of It Takes Money, Honey, a book on personal finance for women.

Pick Your Child's Guardian

Possibly the single most important reason for you to write a will: to name someone you trust to raise your child in the event that both you and your spouse die unexpectedly. That's why even parents who have little money or other assets need this crucial document. "Without a will, the courts decide who looks after your child, typically giving preference to close relatives, such as parents and siblings," says James Kosakow, an estate-planning attorney in Westport, CT. "But how could the judge ever know whether your sister or your mother-in-law would make the better guardian  -- or if an even smarter choice would be your best friend, who's been like a second mother to your son since he was born?"

Naming a guardian is probably the most daunting aspect of drawing up a will  -- not only do you have to decide whom you trust the most to raise your child, but you and your spouse then have to agree on the person. So sit down together and run through a series of questions about each of the people you're considering:

  • How old is he?
  • Is she healthy?
  • Does he already have children  -- and is that a good thing?
  • Does she live nearby, so that your child would remain in familiar surroundings, and how much does that matter to you?
  • Is he financially sound?
  • Are her relationships stable?
  • Perhaps most important of all, does he share your values and your views about raising kids?

Once you've agreed on someone, talk to your choice to make sure he or she is prepared to take on the role. Also have an alternate candidate in mind if circumstances changed and your first choice could no longer handle the job.

Think, too, about whether you want to name a separate property guardian to manage financial assets you leave directly to your children. "The most natural and least contentious situation is to let your child's guardian handle the finances," notes Randolph. "But if that person is bad with money, separating the roles makes sense."

Figure Out Who Will Inherit What

You don't need a will to dictate what happens to property that you and your partner own jointly; it passes directly to the co-owner. So if you share checking and savings accounts with your spouse and both of your names appear on the deed to your home, your spouse will inherit those assets, no questions asked. Similarly, any assets you own for which you were asked to name a beneficiary  -- for example, a life insurance policy or your 401(k) account  -- will also pass directly to that person upon your death.

So what do you need a will for? A will states what happens to any savings, real estate, or personal property that you own in your name only  -- in effect, everything else.

Don't assume that if you die without a will, your spouse will simply inherit whatever you've got. A court steps in to dispense of the belongings of anyone who dies without a will, using state guidelines. In the case of married couples with children, that usually means dividing everything between the surviving spouse and the children. "Even if this is what you want, you probably want to make some provision for an adult to oversee the kids' money until they're older," says Kosakow, who also recommends discussing any unusual bequests  -- such as what to do with your grandmother's pearls  -- with family members ahead of time.

Get the Right Kind of Help

You don't necessarily need the services of a pricey lawyer to draw up a will. In fact, you may not need a lawyer at all. With several good family-attorney programs on the market (among them, Quicken Lawyer 2002 Personal Deluxe, created by Nolo, and Kiplinger's WillPower, published by Block Financial) and a number of design-your-own-will websites (such as Wills.com and Doyourownwill.com), you can create a customized document on your own, typically for $50 to $100. Experts say that if your will is pretty straightforward  -- you just want to name a guardian and leave everything to your spouse and kids, for instance  -- the do-it-yourself approach is usually fine.

On the other hand, if your situation is at all unusual (for example, if you have a special-needs child or you're concerned that family members may fight over your wishes) or you have substantial assets, you should see a lawyer who specializes in estate planning. Then, too, you may use a lawyer simply so you can discuss these weighty issues with a real, live person trained in the field. If you do use one, expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $1,200 for a simple will, depending on where you live, according to Dennis Sandoval, director of legal education for the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys in San Diego.

Whichever method you choose, you must sign the final document in the presence of at least two witnesses; this is typically all that's required to make a will legal. Then store it in a safe place and let a few people you trust know where it is. Every couple of years, or when you have a significant change in your life (for example, if you have another child), update the will to make sure it reflects your current wishes.

That's all there is to it. Really. "People put off drawing up their will as if it were a root canal, but the process itself is simple," says Randolph. "It's facing up to a discussion about your own death that's the hard part." Adds Kosakow, "Ultimately, writing your will is a loving act. It means you care enough to provide for and to ensure your family's well-being, under any circumstances."

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