Start with a Will
A will is the easiest and cheapest estate planning document to prepare. Most people can create their own will without hiring a lawyer. After you are gone, your will must be probated. Probate is a process whereby your loved ones must petition the local probate court, open a probate file, administer the property pursuant to your state's probate code, and then distribute the property.
By becoming familiar with estate planning, you can reduce the need for a lawyer by doing most of the work yourself. The average attorney charges $250 to $300 per hour. If you save your lawyer ten hours of time, you have saved $2,500 to $3,000!
Because of the complexity of the probate process, it is almost impossible for a family to probate a will without hiring a lawyer. Each state has its own detailed court rules and forms required to effectively probate a will and close an estate.
The Document for Young Families
A will may be the document of choice for a young family for several reasons. The first reason is that, in some states, a will is the only document that allows you to name a guardian for your minor children. It is not necessary to name a guardian if there is a natural parent living. However, if both natural parents are gone, a will gives you the opportunity to choose the person or persons you would like to raise your children.
Most states require a will to name a guardian, but at least one state allows a written declaration designating your preferred guardian. If you do not wish to complete a will but are concerned about having a guardian for your minor children, check the laws of your state to see whether a written declaration is allowed or whether you must have a will.
If you do not have a will, and both natural parents are gone, the probate court will conduct hearings to determine who should serve as the legal guardian of your minor children. A person who petitions the court to serve as legal guardian may not be the person you would have chosen had you prepared for this eventuality in advance. If this thought scares you, keep in mind that it is very difficult for someone to contest your choice of a guardian when you name that person in your will.
The second reason a young person or family might choose to have a will rather than other legal arrangements is because a will is easy and inexpensive to prepare. A young person is less likely to die than is someone older. Even so, in the unlikely event of a premature death, it is important that your instructions be contained in a legally binding document. Every state has a law that directs how your property will pass if you die without making a will, and this distribution may not fit with your intentions.
If you are older, you may choose to have a will because your affairs are not complex, but you want to make sure that your property passes to the loved ones of your choice. Although there may be some costs in distributing your assets when you are gone, a will is an excellent estate planning document.
A disadvantage to using a will is that there are additional costs and delays associated with going through probate. However, if you have a will, at least you have left instructions about how you want your property distributed, and the probate court will make sure those instructions are carried out.