If the subject of wills scares you to death, read this.
A will is a legal document, nothing more. It can be extremely complicated or very simple, depending upon the value of your estate and the nature of your generosity.
Most wills have three basic purposes:
First, a will establishes who will have the right to your property after you die--property such as your home, your car, your bank account. Second, a will can be used to name a guardian for any of your minor surviving children. Finally, in a will you may appoint an "executor" who will manage your business affairs until the property is placed in the hands of your heirs.
Lose Your Choices
If you don't have a will, you lose any choice in these important matters.
Without a will, the state will decide how to divvy up your property and who will take care of any minor children you have. Each state has its own formula to determine how your property will be divided.
In California, if you are survived by a spouse and two children--and leave no will--your money and worldly goods would be split among them. Your spouse would receive all of your community property--what you own together--and your spouse and children would share equally in your separate property.
The state will not make some choices for you. If you want anything special--Cousin Harry to have a particular piece of art or some money set aside for the college education of your grandchildren--you'll need a will.
If you die without a will, a court will decide who will take care of your minor children. The guardian a judge selects may not be one that you would have wanted to bring up your kids. If for no other reason, parents with young children should use a will to appoint a guardian.
Even if you are alone in the world, there is a good reason for a will: With no will and without any living relative, the state may get all of your assets.
If you die without a will (what lawyers call "intestate"), the court will appoint an administrator to handle the affairs of your estate, and he may not be the trustworthy accountant friend that you would have picked.
With a will, you can pick your own executor and provide that he will not have to post a bond to cover your assets while he tidies up your affairs, making sure that your heirs receive their proper share.
In a future column, I'll cover preparing a will--with or without a lawyer. With the adoption of a new probate code, some of the rules have changed.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.