How should you think about your estate planning?

While you’re living and healthy, you value being able to make your own decisions about your finances, property, health care, and raising your children. Should you die or become incapacitated, you hope others will handle these matters for you according to your wishes.

The only way to ensure that will happen is through estate planning. This process involves weighing various personal and financial decisions and creating legal arrangements to carry out those decisions.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about wills.

What is a will?

A will is a written document that allows you to designate: who will receive your estate (your property that does not pass by beneficiary designation or joint ownership arrangement; see more below) after you die. who will raise your children if you die while they’re still minors, and your spouse is unavailable to care for them. whether your beneficiaries receive their inheritance outright or in a trust. who will serve as your personal representative – that is, the person who will pay your bills and taxes and distribute the rest of your estate to your beneficiaries.

When should I write a will?

If you have accumulated some assets, and you care who will receive those assets after you die, it’s time to write a will.

Anyone with minor children definitely should have a will. In it, you can name the person you want to raise your children, should something happen to you and your spouse. Discuss this carefully with the prospective guardian, to be sure he or she is up to the job. Also, name an alternate guardian in your will as a backup.

What if I die without a will?

In this case, the court appoints a personal representative who distributes your entire estate to your surviving spouse or registered domestic partner – unless you have children from outside your current marriage. In that case, your spouse or registered domestic partner retains half the marital property and receives half your individual property, with the rest of your estate split equally among all your children, from this marriage and outside it. (See also the State Bar of Wisconsin’s pamphlet, Marital Property: Answering Your Legal Questions.)

If you have no spouse, registered domestic partner, or surviving children or descendants of children when you die, your estate goes to other surviving relatives. State law lists the order of inheritance as follows: parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and descendants of grandparents. The state school fund receives your assets if you leave no heirs closer than the descendants of your grandparents.

If you leave behind minor children and have named no guardian in a will, a court must choose a guardian.

What makes a will legal?

To be valid, your will must be in writing, and you must date and sign it. At least two witnesses also must sign the will.

What is a living will?

A living will is a separate legal document, not a part of your will. It allows you to state in writing your preferences about life-prolonging medical treatment.

For more information on estate planning and wills, visit WisBar. org.

To learn more about estate planning or to view answers to other commonly asked questions, visit Information.

This information does not constitute legal advice and is only intended to provide general information about the law. Before making any important legal decisions, you should seek the advice of a lawyer who can provide guidance about your particular circumstances

The monthly Legal Ease column is written by Patricia S. Carrera, J.D., director of PINNACLE®, the leading provider of continuing legal education (CLE) in Wisconsin. All Wisconsin attorneys are required to earn CLE credits to maintain their licenses and better serve you. With more than 24,000 members, the State Bar also aids the courts in improving the administration of justice and educates the public about the legal system

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