LONGVILLE -- Everyone should have a will, Victor Smith of Smith Law Offices in Walker emphasized for those attending a Cass County Extension program on preparing wills March 1 in Longville.
Attorneys believe wills are important enough that they deeply discount their usual rates when writing a will, Smith said.
Average attorney fees in this area are about $125 to $150, Smith said. Wills take an average of four hours for attorneys to prepare. Their charges for wills, however, generally are only $50 to $100 total.
It costs about $1,500 to $2,000 to probate an estate after a person dies, Smith said.
Anyone can fill out a form available at the courthouse to write their own will, Smith said, and have it signed (and preferably notarized) by two people over age 18.
However, he warned, if any of the information requested is not filled out or signed exactly as it should be, the will may not be valid.
Smith said he currently is processing a privately prepared will where someone signed on the wrong line. That person's signature is being contested in court, he said. If the signature is ruled invalid, so, too, will be the will.
A will ensures those you want to benefit from your estate really do, he said. It can prevent having to process an estate through probate court, he said.
Only through a will can you direct some of your estate to go to anyone other than your spouse and children, he said. A will can specify a guardian for young children when both parents die before the children are grown, he added.
Wills are a way to specify which pieces of your personal property go to a child, friend or relative who has admired that piece in your home, he said. It eases conflicts and decision making after you die, he added.
"Small stuff often causes more fights than larger assets," Smith said.
A husband and wife should each have a separate will, he said. Wills should be updated or a new will written about every 20 years, Smith said.
Most people don't think about writing a will until they are about 40, he said.
Actually, people with young children should be considering care for their children, whether they would want their estate set aside for their children's education or a downpayment on their future house or other factors, he said.
Once children are grown, parents may want to specify their estate be used for their grandchildren's education or future in another way, he said.
Spouses should hold titled property such as real estate, cars, boats, trailers and snowmobiles in joint tenancy to ease ownership transition between them when one dies and prevent the need to probate the estate, he said.
Joint tenancy can be established with any other person besides spouses, even between non-related people, he added. To ensure another person can access a bank account after you die, be sure it is set up as a joint tenancy account, not just a signature account, Smith said.
Insurance policies should be owned in joint tenancy to avoid probating them, Smith said.
A surviving spouse can receive benefits from a 401K or IRA account if the spouse is designated as a beneficiary for that account, he said.
Under a life estate, you can transfer titles to children or other people and still use the assets during your lifetime, but this can involve estate taxes for the beneficiary when you die, he said.
Trusts may be another option for people who have more than $675,000 in assets to limit estate taxes, he said. A trustee is named to manage the funds and an administrator named to distribute to beneficiaries after you die, he said.
Trusts can be revocable or irrevocable. A testamentary trust is one form of irrevocable trust, specifying assets go into the trust only at time of death.
Smith suggested anyone establishing a trust might want to require the trustee and/or administrator be bonded.
Wills are especially important for blended families, Smith said, to direct children from both families benefit from their parents' estates or other choices the couple makes.
It is still possible, however, for a surviving spouse in a blended family to change his or her will later to benefit only his or her own children, Smith warned.
Where should you keep a will? Not in the bank safety deposit box. Smith said it takes a court order to open the safety deposit box after a person dies.
Instead, for a $5 filing fee, the will should be filed at the courthouse. No one can know there even is a will until after death when it is filed a the courthouse, he said.
Living wills have nothing to do with your estate, Smith said. They are a directive for your care if your health is such that you cannot decide treatment for your health condition, he said.
A person is named as a proxy to make those decisions for you, he said.
If you make a living will, your children, doctor, hospital and anyone else who needs to know your health care wishes should all have copies, Smith said.
A person having power of attorney does not have authority to make health care decisions unless they have durable power of attorney and you are incompetent, Smith said.
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