When the State Makes Decisions for You

What do Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr., professional golfer Payne Stewart and NFL quarterback Steve McNair have in common?

All are famous individuals whose lives ended prematurely without warning. Their tragedies serve as reminders that it is never too early to plan. In fact, there may be no better time than now, while the idea is fresh in your mind, to plan for your future. One of the most important ways to do that is through your will.

To help you get started, here are a few commonly asked questions about wills along with their answers. We would also be glad to answer any questions you might have and assist you and your advisors in starting this important process.

Q. What happens if I die without a will?
A. More than half of all Americans die without a will (the legal term for this is intestate). If you fall in this category, you have no say over who receives your assets at your death. Loved ones, friends and charities dear to you may receive nothing.

If you die without a will, your assets are distributed according to the state laws where you lived at the time of your death. These laws are called intestate succession laws and all 50 states have them. Laws vary from state to state, but no state provides for a portion of an intestate estate to go to charity.

Following state law, the court will decide who will administer your estate and how the assets will be distributed. The court will appoint someone based on the priority list set out in state law.

Q. How will my assets be distributed?
A. Most states look first to the spouse and children of the decedent. Other blood relatives may also inherit in the event that there is no spouse or living children.

Q. Can I control how my assets are distributed?
A. Absolutely. When you create a will, you take control of your legacy and the distribution of your assets.

Q. Do I really need an attorney to create a will?
A. Yes. Your will is perhaps the single most important document in terms of taking control of how your assets are handled. You've worked your entire life to build a legacy. Don't risk it—using a qualified professional will save your loved ones some major headaches down the road.

Q. I don't have an attorney. How do I find one?
A. Tackle this task just as you would if you were searching for a new doctor or auto repair shop. Start by asking your friends, relatives and co-workers. You can also seek referrals from a local bar association, estate planning council or the American Bar Association's Internet lawyer referral service.

Still Have Questions?
We're here to help. To learn more about remembering Gustavus Adolphus College with a gift in your will, please contact Laurie L. Dietrich '80 at 507-933-6043 or ldietric@gustavus.edu.

Download our free guide with tips on making your will.

Why You Need an Estate Planning Attorney

If you're worried about saving time and money, you may think a DIY will is good enough. Think again—experts agree that it is wise to hire an attorney to draft your will to ensure that it is legally valid and accomplishes exactly what you want, such as the key items below.

1. Your will has a big job to do. Most of us will use our estate plans to accomplish these important tasks:
  • Name an executor, the person or financial institution that will oversee the execution of the terms outlined in your will
  • Name a guardian for minor children or other dependents
  • Distribute personal property to friends and family members
  • Set up trusts to save taxes and provide financial management
2. Your will can define your legacy. Many of us want to leave a lasting mark on the world. A gift in your will, called a bequest, is a perfect way to do so. You can designate a specific item; a set sum of money; a percentage of your estate; or the remainder of your estate once other bequests, debts and taxes have been paid. In return, your estate receives an estate tax deduction for the amount of the gift.