Alright, I admit I went to the archives for this one.  What can I say, its tax season and everyone is a bit busy around here.  I hope you don’t mind my knocking the dust off of this ever so important issue of estate planning.

During this month of St. Patrick’s Day, I have taken a few minutes to reflect upon the vast changes that have occurred in how we view, accept, and move on after death.  For many years, and even still today in some Irish villages, death was viewed as a new beginning for the unfortunate sole it had come to take.  When reading old newspaper clips from Ireland, death often came in some dramatic fashion; a fall from the roof top, a trampling of a farm animal, or often in the midst of a jig and a good pint at the local pub.

A few days later, the entire town would parade through the village, following the deceased, wailing all the way to the final resting place.  Within an hour of the burial everyone was back at the pub toasting and remembering Uncle Liam whether he really deserved it or not.  They celebrated the grand afterlife, cherished the thought of the old bloke watching over them, and the family inherited what was rightfully theirs within days and moved on.  Things are needless to say, much different now.

Today, if you care about what happens to your money, home, and other property after you die, you need to do some estate planning.  There are many tools you can use to achieve your estate planning goals, but a will is probably the most vital.  Even if you’re young or your estate is modest, you should always have a legally valid and up-to-date will.  This is especially important if you have minor children because, in many states, your will is the only legal way you can name a guardian for them.

Wills avoid intestacy and distribute property according to your wishes

Probably the greatest advantage of a will is that it allows you to avoid intestacy.  That is, with a will you get to choose who will get your property, rather than leave it up to state law.  State intestate succession laws, in effect, provide a will for you if you die without one.  This “intestate’s will” distributes your property, in general terms that may not be what you would have wanted.   Wills allow you to leave bequests (gifts) to anyone you want.  You can leave your property to a surviving spouse, a child, other relatives, friends, a trust, a charity, or anyone you choose.

Wills allow you to nominate a guardian for your minor children

In many states, a will is your only means of stating who you want to act as legal guardian for your minor children if you die.  You can name a personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, and a property guardian, who manages the children’s assets.  This can be the same person or different people.  The probate court has final approval, but courts will usually approve your choice of guardian unless there are compelling reasons not to.

Wills specify how to pay estate taxes and can help minimize taxes

The way in which estate taxes and other expenses are paid can be directed by your will.  To ensure that the specific bequests you make to your beneficiaries are not reduced by taxes and other expenses, you can provide in your will that these costs be paid from your residuary estate.  Or, you can specify which assets should be used or sold to pay these costs.

A will also gives you the chance to minimize taxes and other costs.  For instance, if you draft a will that leaves your entire estate to your U.S. citizen spouse, none of your property will be taxable when you die (if your spouse survives you) because it is fully deductible under the unlimited marital deduction.  However, if your estate is distributed according to intestacy rules, a portion of the property may be subject to estate taxes if it is distributed to heirs other than your U.S. citizen spouse.

There are many other advantages to having a will, and even more should one choose to complete the package with living wills and health care directives.  These additions will protect your rights and desires should you ever become incapacitated or unable to communicate.  So while things are much different today than they were years ago on the “Isle of Green” there is still much we can do to keep our legacy prosperous and easy to administer.  So this March, take a few minutes to get your affairs in order.  I for one like to imagine my heirs and well wishers toasting the night away at my wake then mired by taxes, intestacy, and family strife.   The traditional lyrics below bring to mind the contentment one with only a will could have.  Happy St.Patrick’s Day!

Oh all the money that e’er I had, I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done, alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit to memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all

                                                                        ~Traditional Irish Tune