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First step in estate planning: Decide who counts as family

When Washington residents begin to prepare a will, they have often spent a lot of time thinking about how they will ensure the well-being of their family, but they may not have thought much about a more basic question: Who counts as family? Marriage creates a number of complexities in estate planning for which many people neglect to prepare.

A father may want to provide for his daughter, but he may be less interested in her husband. Similarly, a divorced mother might want to provide for a former stepchild. Many people would like to provide for everyone in a large extended family, but they just don't have enough money in their estates to go around. These considerations have to go into everyone's estate planning.

Most states have laws that automatically transfer at least part of a person's estate to his or her spouse upon death. Some states also provide for children this way, and some allow even purposefully disinherited spouses or children to claim a so-called elective share so that they are not left completely out of the person's estate.

Further complicating this picture, Washington is a community property state. In community property states a married couple's marital assets and debts are split 50-50. This comes up often in divorce, but it comes up after the death of one of the spouses, as well. Because each spouse has a right to at least 50 percent of the marital assets, one may not give away more than half the assets in a will.

When executed correctly, a will is part of a simple and effective estate plan. Still, without expert counsel, it can be easy to make mistakes that make a will ineffective and anything but simple. A qualified, experienced Washington estate planning attorney can help people avoid these common mistakes.

Source: Reuters, "Who is family when it comes to estate planning?" Beth Pinsker, Oct. 29, 2013

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