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Using Estate Planning Tools to Avoid Will Contests

Estate planning is something many people don't want to think about. Pondering your own mortality can be difficult, no matter your age. But, young or old, rich or poor, sick or healthy, it is something that needs to be done. Having a comprehensive estate plan will not only ensure that your wishes about your property are followed after you are gone, but can also prevent disputes amongst your loved ones over assets.

Will a Will Be Enough?

Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer is no. Sometimes a will isn't the best way to ensure that your assets are dispersed in the way you want them to be when you pass away. A recent U.S. News & World Report article about estate planning provided a concise real-world example of when a will might actually encourage disputes.

When a Will Won't Cut It

Let's assume that "Jill" passes away with a will dictating that her property be split four ways and divided between her children. Let's also assume that no specific property was assigned to any one child (there weren't will provisions for the dispersal of the family china to her daughter Mary or the classic car to her son Roger, etc.).

It may seem, on the outside, simple. Someone unfamiliar with the nuances of the myriad laws dealing with disposition of property might just think "that's easy, just split everything four ways and you're done." The situation isn't that cut and dried, though.

If Jill's entire estate consisted of the home where the children grew up, the only way to divide that asset four ways would be to sell it and split the profits. But, if even one of the children contests the sale, how would the matter be handled? The court could assign the home to one child with the understanding that he or she compensates the remaining siblings to cover their share of the inheritance.

If Jill's estate instead consisted of valuable family heirlooms like antique furniture, jewelry that has been passed down through several generations or items of historical importance that are hard to value, a will simply assigning one-quarter share of Jill's property to each child will be even more likely to result in a family dispute. The heirs could argue about the best method to assign a value to the items, or they might disagree about proposed ways to split the property.

A Will Plus...

This is not to say that wills themselves are not helpful. Even if a will can't handle all possible contingencies for property division, they are still valuable tools for making a decedent's wishes known, and they can be helpful for probate court judges who have to make determinations about the division of estate assets. A will can be enhanced by other estate planning tools - trusts, pre-death gifts, living trusts and powers of attorney - and play a vital role in a comprehensive estate plan that gives peace of mind to the entire family while protecting the wishes of the will's subject.

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