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