According to a Consumer Reports study, more than two-thirds of Americans don't even have wills! Do you have one? Great! Do you think that this means you're done with your estate planning? Heck no, you're not!
Why? Even though wills are the basic estate planning document that everyone needs, there are drawbacks. For one thing, they are public records. That's right, when you die, your family has to file your will with probate court (although some states use different names -- New York calls them Surrogate's Court, for example). Once your will is filed, anyone can read it, copy it, and -- yes -- even post it on the Internet if they want.
Want to see Paul Newman's will? Like dozens of other celebrity wills, you can read all about it here: Radar Online Exclusive: Paul Newman's will.
Unlike certain other recently-deceased celeb's (Heath Ledger, for instance), Newman was smart enough to update his will -- this one was created April 11, 2008, and he amended it with a codicil dated July 24th. Newman was very thorough, addressing his airplane and race cars, Oscars and other awards, charitable foundations, lucrative businesses, and the rights to market his name and image. His will leaves most of his assets to a trust he created (again, he was smart), his wife and his charitable foundation.
Of course, if he had placed his assets into his trust before he died, rather than through his will, he could have kept his final wishes private. Most people don't realize this: your affairs don't have to be public. Your family doesn't have to go through probate court, like Paul Newman's is doing right now. With a proper trust, you can keep your affairs private, among many other benefits that you can't get from a will alone.
If you're not a celebrity, why would you care if your affairs are kept private? (Here comes the probate litigation tip). Wills and probate estates in general are much easier to challenge in court! Relatives, creditors, and anyone else who wants to make a claim against your estate can easily come to court -- hand extended -- and cause problems. With a trust, if used properly, you can avoid all that. It is much harder for anyone to challenge your wishes in a trust that is kept private, because they won't even know what your trust says.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+