Will can protect your assets, and your kids

We spend countless hours and dollars in the pursuit of love. Just think of what Americans dropped on St. Valentine's Day.

Too many of us, though, fail to ensure that our partner, once found, continues to benefit from our money after our death. That is, we fail to write a will and designate beneficiaries for our assets.


The odds are slim you'll pass away before your first gray hair. But if you aren't prepared, you could leave it up to state law to decide how your savings, home and other valuables are divided up, not to mention potentially decide who will care for your children.

That's not a risk worth taking. So before you finish off that heart-shaped box of chocolates, read some basic guidelines to estate planning.


Who needs a will?

You may think a will only dictates how money is divvied up after your demise. But it serves another important role: It is the one document by which you can name a guardian for your children if you are a single parent or in the event both you and your spouse die.

"If you're in your 20s, you're not married and you don't really have much, you may not need a will," said Mary Randolph, co-author of the legal manual to Quicken's WillMaker Plus software. "The big difference comes when you get married, and especially when you have children."

Without a named guardian, you leave it up to a court to decide who will raise your children, as well as manage the assets that you pass on to them.

"It's a big decision for people, and it's an emotional decision. But it's like buckling the seat belt in the car. You don't have to think about the crash that might happen. You just do it," Randolph said.

Regardless of whether you have children or a spouse, you should check how state law would distribute your assets.

Other considerations.

Your assets may not always be subject to state law or a will.


Retirement accounts, for one, pass directly to a beneficiary you name. If no one is named, the plan administrator follows its own protocol, often sending the funds to a spouse or your estate.

If you own a home as a joint tenant or tenancy by entirety, the home passes automatically to the survivor, or person who shares the title with you; it's the same with a joint bank account and brokerage account. If you're single, you can specify in a will who should receive them.

"It's important to focus on how things are titled and what beneficiaries are designated," said Patrick Bitterman, an estate planner for Quarles & Brady LLP in Chicago. That's especially true because in these arrangements the court does not have to become involved.

Stay updated.

To avoid unnecessary delays, confusion and family arguments after your death, remember to keep your will and accounts updated.

You can make changes at any time.


"People often change their mind, especially with guardianship," Bitterman said.

If your planning needs are simple, you can find software to help draft a will for around $40. For more complicated estates, you may want to meet with an attorney, who will charge at least a few hundred dollars.

Bitterman recommends asking an attorney to spend up to an hour with you, at no charge, to review your situation first.

"You don't know you have the right attorney until you find out what he or she can offer," he said.

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.