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placeholder February 6, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Weddings & Anniversaries

What happens if you die without a will?

Jeffrey Hall

Many of us during the course of our lives will do basic things, such as marry, buy a house, have kids and work — all good things. While everything is fine with that plan, however, what happens when one spouse unexpectedly dies?

The American Association of Retired Persons reports a striking statistic that the majority of married couples (of all ages) don't have a will or any other estate planning document. This pattern is mostly the product of human emotion, one that embraces the notion that we live forever and "I'll worry about that later;" or, the emotion of denial — "that dying is for wimps and I don't have to worry about that because I'm young and I'll live forever."

Well, some of us learn a painful lesson during life, that sometimes those preconceived ideas don't always work as planned. We all die sooner or later and the "I'll deal with estate planning matters later" methodology often leads to very unfortunate outcomes. Those outcomes include leaving behind a spouse and/or children, all of whom must then handle a mess of paperwork, lawyers and an unforgiving probate court system.

For both newlyweds and older married couples, here are a few basic estate planning concepts that hopefully will provide enough information for those who are do-it-yourself estate planners or for those who may seek the consultation of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Dying without a will is called dying "intestate." Each state has laws that determine what will happen to your estate if you don't have a will.

If you are married, most states award one-third to one-half of your estate to your spouse, with the rest divided among your children or, if you don't have children, to other living relatives such as your parents or siblings. If you are single, most states provide that your estate will go to your children or to other living relatives if you don't have children. If you have absolutely no living relatives, then your estate will go to the state.

Note that any jointly held assets, such as bank accounts or houses, will go directly to the co-owner. In addition, any life insurance policies or retirement accounts will go directly to the beneficiary designated on the account. And if you have a trust, any assets in the trust will go to the beneficiary designated in the trust.

One purpose of a will is to name a guardian for your young children; if you do not have a will, the court will determine who will act as guardian. The court will also appoint the person who will administer your estate. In addition, if you are unmarried, but have a partner, your partner will not inherit anything from your estate without a will naming him or her as a beneficiary.

The best way to ensure your estate is distributed the way you want it, is to plan your estate with a will and/or a trust.

(Attorney Jeffrey Hall can be reached at 925-230-9002 or www.HallLawGroup.com.)

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