Wills and Trusts

An estate plan begins with a will or living trust
A will provides your instructions, but it does not avoid probate.Wills allow you to leave your instructions regarding distribution of your assets, appoint guardians for minor children and appoint the executor for your estate. However, any assets titled in your name and controlled by your will must go through the probate process before they can be distributed to your heirs. (If you own property in other states, your family will probably face multiple probates, each one according to the laws in that state.) The process varies greatly from state to state, but it can become expensive with legal fees, executor fees and court costs. It can also take anywhere from five months to two years or longer. With rare exception, probate files are open to the public and excluded heirs are given notice of your will and the time period they have to contest it. the court system, not your family, controls the process.
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Joint ownership and beneficiary designations. Not everything you own will go through probate. Jointly-owned property and assets that let you name a beneficiary (for example, life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, etc.) are not controlled by your will and usually will transfer to the new owner or beneficiary without probate. But there are many potential problems with joint ownership, and avoidance of probate is not guaranteed. For example, if a valid beneficiary is not named, the assets will have to go through probate and will be distributed along with the rest of your estate. If you name a minor as a beneficiary, the court will probably insist on a conservator until the child legally becomes an adult. And if your beneficiary has creditor or divorce problems, the asset may be lost even if it avoids probate.
For these reasons a revocable living trust is preferred by many families and estate planning attorneys. It can avoid probate at death (including multiple probates if you own property in other states), prevent the appointment of a conservator if you become incapacitated, bring all of your assets (even those with beneficiary designations) together into one plan, provide maximum privacy, is valid in every state, and can be changed by you at any time. It can also reflect your love and values to your family and future generations. Unlike a will, a trust doesn't have to die with you. Assets can stay in your trust, managed by the trustee you select, until your beneficiaries reach the age at which you want them to inherit. You can also provide for your trust to continue on for a loved one to protect the assets you leave to that person from a potential divorce, creditors or to prevent irresponsible spending. If you have a disabled beneficiary, it can allow that beneficiary to benefit from your inheritance without losing other benefits they may be receiving.
A living trust is more expensive initially than a will, but considering it can avoid court interference at incapacity and death, unintentional disinheritance and the loss of assets to beneficiaries' creditors, divorces, and irresponsible spending, many people consider it to be a bargain.