Long Term Care Planning: Wills

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A will ensures, as much as possible, that your wishes are followed. One way to convince a resistant older person of the importance of creating a will is to make one yourself or to remind the person that you went through the process, and though it wasn't easy, it was a relief to have completed it.

If you have any money, property, family heirlooms, or just personal treasures, or if you have children or other dependents who will need a new guardian after your death, you need a will. (In some cases a trust is an appropriate way to distribute property instead.)

Many people believe that if you die without a will, your family will automatically divide up your property. Not exactly. A person who dies without a will is legally intestate. In that case, state law operating through a probate court determines how the property will be divided, often leading to outcomes that the person would never have wanted.

Blood relatives will likely be favored over domestic partners. Children will be treated equally, even if one of them has been estranged from the parent for years. Stepchildren may not be included, even though they are well loved. Such unwanted outcomes can be avoided through the creation of a valid will.

Many people underestimate the value of their possessions, not just in monetary terms but also in sentimental value to family members. An older person may say, “That old painting? Who would want that?” The answer may be, “A lot of your children or grandchildren who remember it hanging on your wall when they came to visit.”

Or the opposite may happen. Your parent may say to more than one person, “When I'm gone, that painting is going to be yours. It's worth a lot of money.”

Instructions about burial or cremation and funeral or memorial service plans should not be put in a will. A will is generally read several days or weeks after death, when it is too late to honor the person's wishes. If you or your parent has specific directions, they should be put in a separate document to be opened at death.

It is best to alert family members about this document to avoid conflicts. The USAA Educational Foundation has a useful brochure, “A Guide for Your Survivors,” with advice on preparing instructions for funeral or memorial services.

As early as possible, consult an attorney who can guide you through the process of taking inventory of your assets, determining what kind of will best suits your situation, choosing the executor, what provisions to include, and how to finalize the will.

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