One of the greatest gifts someone can make to his or her family is to detail final instructions on financial and medical matters for legal purposes, say experts on aging and the law.
Pay a few hundred or a few thousand dollars now to create a will, trust, living will or advance directive, and you can ease the burden that your death would create for your loved ones.
That's something Glendale resident Bob Dionisio did about 26 years ago, after the birth of his son. The goal is to have "wishes acknowledged" and priorities understood, he said.
Getting his papers in order has helped him feel more settled, said Dionisio, 57.
"When it's completed, it's like a check off your to-do list. You feel like you did the right thing for your family," he said. "You have the opportunity to plan for the unexpected."
He first wrote a will and a few years later created a trust, a legal arrangement in which you choose someone to manage your assets. A trust, which can cost from $1,500 to tens of thousands of dollars for a complicated estate, can help your heirs avoid dealing with the court process of probate, which works to distribute assets and handle debts.
A will, which can cost a few hundred dollars, does not keep your estate from probate. In many cases, probate simply requires filling out paperwork with the court to proceed with administering your wishes.
Die without a will or trust in Arizona and your estate is considered "intestate."
Before survivors go to court, saying their loved one didn't leave behind a will, families should "try and make a sufficient investigation,'' advised Lindsey Jackson, associate attorney with Gammage & Burnham in Phoenix. Search the house and go through personal papers.
While you're doing that, gather records of the deceased person's assets. Arizona allows you to stay out of probate court if the estate is small -- that is, if the personal property (art, jewelry, vehicles) is worth less than $50,000 and the real estate owned by the deceased is worth less than $75,000.
"In Arizona, there's a lot of people where probate is not required because so many people are underwater on their homes," Jackson said.
Arizona has rules for the distribution of assets if there is no will.
"A lot of people think, 'I don't have an estate plan, I don't have that much,' but if you don't have a will or trust, the state of Arizona gets to decide for you,'' Jackson said.
If there is a surviving spouse with no children outside of the marriage, the estate goes to the spouse.
If there is a surviving spouse and the deceased has living children from another relationship, half goes to the surviving spouse and the other half is divided among the children.
"We warn people all the time to have at least some sort of basic will, or these things will happen," Jackson said. "We tell people when doing estate planning, you're not doing it to benefit yourself; it's for the benefit of your family. It can be a very emotional time after a death."
If there is no surviving spouse and no children, the property will go to the deceased's parents. If they are not alive, it goes to siblings.
And if no close, living relative is found, the search continues along the family tree. Finally, if no living relative at all is found, the estate goes to the state of Arizona.
Generally, the search will continue for two years, long enough for any creditor's claims on debts allegedly owed by the deceased to expire.
With a will, administration fees for probate are generally about $300. If a will is not specific, someone might challenge it. A contested will can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Jackson said.
For Baby Boomers, the issue of getting legal documents in place is a subject to consider not only for their heirs but their parents. Boomers may want to help their parents as they decide on financial or medical directives.
David Harowitz, an estate-planning attorney with Nussbaum Gillis & Dinner in Phoenix, estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of people have no estate planning completed at the time of their death.
"People just don't get around to it," he said.
There are three times in life when people often feel the need to complete a will: when their children are very young, when they are empty nesters and the children are gone, and when they have had a parent die and they've been beneficiaries and gone through probate.
Although people can handle their own wills through online programs or kits bought in stores, Harowitz said there's a risk that your wishes could be misinterpreted. And many attorneys in private practice have standard will form books or software that may not be able to be tailored to meet your needs. He suggests finding someone who specializes in estate planning, which can be helpful when an estate is complicated or you own a business.
Most of all, he recommends that people talk to family members about their wishes, especially if they don't plan to distribute assets equally among children.
"It's best to address it ahead of time and help them understand," he said. "Perhaps a child is on drugs and it may be foolish to leave your assets outright."
Talk with your heirs about who might want certain items of personal property. After a death, some people don't react as well as they normally would, Harowitz said. "It's not an uncommon situation. Say, the mom dies and one of (the) adult children gets in town first. Suddenly, there's no jewelry. There can be distrust."
Once you've created the documents, where's the best place to store them?
"The safest place is in a safety deposit box, but many clients don't like having to pay for the box forever," Harowitz said. "Plus, it's inconvenient."
A second option is to buy a good fireproof box. "I stress fireproof," he said.
Or have someone else hold the original documents, in case your house burns down and you're killed in the fire.
From 100-year-old dishes to photos and guns from the Civil War, "you never can imagine the personal property that needs to be protected," said Lynn Keeling of the Keeling Law Offices in Phoenix. "Say your mom was a nurse, and she has her RN pin; who is that going to be important to?"
Talking about personal property can be difficult because it makes the prospect of dying real, Keeling said.
"Ask family members, whether children, grandchildren or siblings, to write you a letter and tell you what property they're interested in," he said. "It can save hurt feelings."
by Connie Cone Sexton - Oct. 12, 2012 The Republic | azcentral.com