Mike Palermo is not surprised at how few people have written wills. Writing a will takes effort and a little money.
But as one of about 1,000 practicing attorneys nationwide who is also a certified financial planner, Mr. Palermo knows there's more behind people's apparent apathy than simple time and money.
"Other than peace of mind, you get no immediate reward," said Mr. Palermo, whose practice is in Lexington, Ky. "On any given day, there are always more pressing matters to take care of - it's even easier to put off than going to the dentist."
If a person dies with no will, known as "intestate," his estate is distributed by the courts in accordance with state law, which may or may not be how the person wants their assets divided.
"Georgia has a statute to determine who gets what in the event that a person dies intestate," said Wilson Haynes, a local attorney with Wilhelmi Hayes LLC. "They look for next of kin, which would generally be the spouse and children ... The court has a whole laundry list of who comes next."
All too often, people count on survivors to "know what we want" or "do the right thing" and resolve matters peacefully, Mr. Palermo said.
That's usually a big mistake, he said.
"Whether it is well-intentioned or not, meddling is a specialty with some of these people," Mr. Palermo said. "Unless you spell out your wishes in a will, the door may be open, for example, for your pushy son-in-law... to pressure your daughter."
People with young children usually use a testamentary trust in conjunction with their will, which allows them to place restrictions on when their children can tap the assets and for what purpose.
This is designed to keep immature or spendthrift heirs from squandering their inheritance.
Individuals whose assets fall into estate tax range - $675,000 or greater for an individual, $1.35 million for a married couple - should consider using other types of trusts to minimize taxation.
That's because an individual's heirs could end up giving 55 percent or more of the estate's value to the government under current estate tax rules.
Certain trusts, such as the irrevocable living trust, allow an individual to reduce their taxable estate by placing assets in the trust, which is considered a separate entity for tax purposes.
Typically, it takes one to two hours to draft a will with an attorney, depending on the complexity of the estate. Most lawyers set up an initial interview to explore the client's needs, then a follow-up meeting for the signatures.
Do-it-yourself wills are available from many sources, but individuals with complex assets are advised to seek professional help.
"When you're dealing with your estate, no matter how large or small it may be, it's far too important to trust to a will kit you buy at the Office Depot," Mr. Haynes said.
According to Georgia law, if you die without a will:
and are survived by only a spouse the spouse is the sole heir.
and are survived by a spouse and any child, the spouse will share equally with the children, provided the spouses share is not less than one-third.
and are not survived by a spouse, the estate will be split equally between the children.
and are not survived by the above, parents will share the estate equally.
and are not survived by the above, siblings will share the estate equally.
and are not survived by the above, grandparents will share the estate equally.
and are not survived by the above, uncles and aunts will share the estate equally.
more remote degrees of kinship will be determined by finding the relative with the closest common ancestor to the deceased
Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org