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A will is a legal document laying out what to do with your assets after you die.

Expanded Definition

Everyone needs a will because (1) everyone dies and (2) no one wants strangers in the person of court officers deciding what happens to their money, assets, or children after they die. The rules regarding how a will must be put together vary by state, but it's safe to say that pencil scratchings on the back of an envelope won't cut it. If you have an extensive or complicated estate your will likely will be more complicated.

Most attorneys can prepare a simple will for you for under $200. Some prefer to use do-it-yourself forms. You will find books on wills at your local library or book store. They can help you make decisions on the most obvious decisions such as "per stipes." (If one of your heirs dies before you, do you want their inheritance from you distributed to their heirs, or do you want it divided among your surviving heirs?)

NoLo Press is the best known publisher of books and software to prepare your own will. Their books will also walk you through the most common questions. But note that state laws can vary. An attorney familiar with the laws of your state can be well worth the price.

Those with children from a previous marriage should be especially careful in drafting a will that meets legal requirements.

In drafting a will, one should also be aware of estate tax issues. If your estate including life insurance and tax preferenced accounts like 401Ks and IRAs exceeds the federal minimum, Federal estate taxes will be due. Many states also collect inheritance taxes. A formal estate plan designed to minimize those taxes may be in order. A living will is also a good idea as part of the package of documents your attorney prepares with your will.

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