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Wills and other estate planning not just for the wealthy

Many Washington residents may think they don't have enough money to bother with estate planning. In fact, everyone who owns anything has an estate and everyone's estate can benefit from an estate plan.

Legally speaking, an estate is simply any assets or items of value that a person leaves behind after death. Estates can be complicated masses of investments, real estate and fine artwork, or they can be a simple bank account or a car. When Washington residents die, they can leave behind a valid will or other simple and effective estate plan to make decisions about how their estate should be distributed.

If Washington residents die without leaving a will, the State of Washington has a sort of one-size-fits-all plan to distribute their estate. A probate court will examine the estate and distribute the assets according to the state law of intestate succession. These laws prioritize beneficiaries according to family relationship. In some cases, the law picks relatives who would have been the deceased's chosen heirs had the deceased left executed a will. In others, some of the heirs end up being relatives the deceased didn't like, and perhaps never knew. In all cases, a will makes the process simpler, faster and less expensive, meaning that less of the estate is eaten up by the expenses that come with a prolonged probate process.

Whether it's to ensure the well-being of one's family or just to make sure that a favorite guitar goes to a favorite niece, a properly executed will can distribute one's estate much more easily than the law of intestate succession can. Washington residents anywhere on the income scale from struggling student to Microsoft executive care about their belongings, and often take great comfort in knowing that they exert some control over how they will be distributed after they pass away.

Source: Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal, "Estate planning: Preserving wealth not just for the 1 percent," Daryl D. Hembry, Oct. 1, 2013

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