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Last thing on your mind

Who could imagine a 25-year-old needing a will?

Brian Parsons could. After he was called up as a captain in the Army Reserve last year, he helped thousands of young people in the military on their way to Iraq understand that they needed a will.

“We wanted them to clear their heads, so that they could concentrate on doing their jobs,” said Parsons, a lawyer from Ansted.

He estimated that the average age of the people he briefed about wills at Fort Bragg, N.C., was 25.

Normally, making a will is the last thing on a young person’s mind, but knowing they could be killed in combat moved making one further up the list of priorities.

Lawyers and estate planners agree everyone should make a will in order to guarantee that their final wishes are followed and to make life easier for those they leave behind.

In his private practice, Parsons said, “I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a client said, ‘My kids are the exception. They get along so well that I am not worried about them dividing the estate.’

“Unfortunately, they [the children] are often at each other’s throats after a death,” he said.

Parsons said some people think their estates are so small they will not need a will. He knows of one man he described as having so few possessions they could all fit in one pickup truck.

“But he had a will. It made life easier for the people he left behind. They have the confidence in knowing they were doing what he wanted done.”

Before making an appointment with a lawyer, most people will want to get prepared by reading about wills and estate planning. There are many good books on the subject and a number of Web sites.

Richard Saul Wurman and Lois Quam write clearly and simply in their book, “Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning.”

Their book includes some easily understandable definitions of basic terms. For example, “a will is a revocable document that sets out how you wish to transfer your property upon your death.” They go on to explain that “you” are referred to as a “testator,” if you are male, and a “testatrix,” if you are a woman.

Those words share the same root word for another word we hear when we speak of someone who dies “testate” or “intestate.” When someone dies testate, that means the person has a will; when someone dies intestate, there is no will.

“Revocable” means you can cancel it.

Wurman and Quam advise: “With a will, you can achieve minimum estate planning at somewhat lower cost and less paperwork than other estate planning devices.”

To get ready to write a will, make a list of all of your assets and how the ownership of those assets is distributed. For example, a husband and wife may have equal ownership in their home. But one spouse may have a percentage ownership in some business.

If you have dependent children, think about who you would like to serve as a guardian for those children.

Many people also like to think about their pets and who will care for them.

Think of who you would like to be the executor of your estate. An executor is the person who hires the lawyer who will start the probate of your estate, handles any debt you left, and notifies agencies and institutions of your death.

Probate means “the process of legally passing ownership of property from a deceased person to his or her heirs or beneficiaries,” according to Wurman and Quam. They also explain that “as required by law, most wills must be probated.”

Who do you want to receive your estate? Do you want a charity or institution to receive something from your estate?

What do you want your children to receive? Is there someone you want to exclude from your will?

Wills should also be updated periodically. Also, if you move, you should update your will.

People may have married again and had children in a second marriage. They may not own the property they listed in their first will.

Some of the people you wanted to leave money or property to could have died first.

Wurman and Quam write that “simple changes to your will can be made by means of a codicil or amendment.”

There are also some obvious basics once you have made your will. If you want to be an organ donor, let someone know well ahead of time.

Also let someone know you have a will. Imagine a person who wanted to save money and be cremated, but this person failed to let anyone know about the wish or the will. The person’s wishes could be ignored, if the will is not located in time.

You can write your will yourself by hand. Wurman and Quam explain that holographic wills are recognized in about 25 states, including West Virginia.

But many people feel better going to a lawyer who frequently handles wills.

Parsons said he tries to earn the trust of his clients. “I recognize clients have to reveal so much private information. You have to divulge so much to do a will. Trust is a huge issue. But I can only do the best for them based on the best information I have.”

Some people think they might be able to save money by not telling their lawyers about all of their assets. But when someone does keep such information back, it usually is more costly in the long run.

Most lawyers charge a few hundred dollars to prepare a will.

On the Internet, sources like The MetLife Web site at www.metlife.com, and www.nolo

.com/lawcenter also offer information about how to prepare a will.

Two other financial planners, Dee Lee and David Caruso, also point out, “The more complicated your life and finances, the more complicated your estate planning needs to be,” according to their book “Let’s Talk Money, Your Complete Personal Finance Guide.”

The two also wrote in their book, “A will can be a complicated legal document, but for your heirs, it’s not as complicated as not having one.”

To contact staff writer Susan Williams, use e-mail or call 348-5112.


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