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There is a lot of confusion about what happens legally when a person passes away.  Some common questions I hear are:  Do you need a Will?  What does a Will do?  Does a Will help you avoid probate?  What is probate?  Does the state get all of my assets?

It is important to have a Will

A Will is a document that allows you to pay off debts and have heirs inherit from you when you pass away.  You can indicate which people get to inherit from you and which do not.

When a person passes away without a Will, Washington has a hierarchy of people who can inherit from that deceased person.  The first who gets to inherit is your spouse.  If you are not married, then your children inherit.  If you do not have a spouse or children, then your parents inherit, then your siblings, and so on down the line.  This is a little simplified because your children or parents will be allowed to inherit a percentage of your estate even if you are married.

If you have a Will, you choose exactly who inherits from you and what percentage of your estate they get.  While it does not help you avoid probate, it does make it easier.  Luckily, Washington has one of the simplest probate processes in the country.  Probate is the legal process of paying off debts and distributing assets when a person passes away.  In California for instance, probate is incredibly expensive and lasts upwards of 18 months.  Washington’s process, in contrast, typically lasts 4-6 months and is fairly straightforward.  With most of my clients (unless there is a family dispute), a good portion of that time is simply waiting for the 4-month creditor claim period to end.

What to do if you don’t have Will

If you do not have a Will, probate still has to be done and is typically more complicated.  The biggest issue with not having a Will is that you run the risk of having people inherit from you that you may not want to receive any of your property.  Not having a Will also creates a lot of confusion with your family about your wishes.

There is a large misconception that the state gets your assets if you pass away without a Will.  That rarely, if ever, happens.  As mentioned above, there is a default hierarchy of who inherits from you if you do not have a Will, which is your family.  However, Washington does have an estate tax which currently kicks in if a person passes away with at least $2.2 million.  This amount goes up each year, and there are some very effective planning techniques to help you avoid it.

You give your family a gift by properly planning for the future.  A Will is an essential estate planning document that everyone needs no matter their situation.  If you have two pennies together, you have an estate and need to do appropriate planning.