Do I Have the Right to See the Will?

Reading WillWhen someone dies, all of the individual’s assets including cash, bank accounts, real estate, automobiles, jewelry, electronics, clothes, and any other personal possession becomes part of that person’s estate. Someone who dies with a will is referred to by courts as having “died testate.” Someone who dies without a will dies intestate, and the distribution of his estate is governed by the state’s intestate succession laws.

If a loved one has died, you may have the right to be involved in the proceedings and see the will. There are two different avenues for gaining access to the will:

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Living Wills and Advance Directives

Advanced DirectiveAn Advance Health Care Directive, also known as a Living Will or Advance Directive — not “Advanced Directive“, as this implies that it is a complicated estate planning tool — is a way to express your health care desires in the event that you are incapacitated.

Most commonly, a living will specifies whether you want your life prolonged by artificial means, such as with breathing apparatuses or feeding tubes. The advance directive may either be general, such as stating that no artificial means should be employed if the physician determines that your condition is terminal, or more specific, describing exact procedures you authorize in particular circumstances. For instance, you might wish to approve the use of pain relievers and antibiotics while also restricting the use of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

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A General Strategy for Reducing Estate Tax

Credit Shelter TrustEstate tax planning is a vital part of your end-of-life plan, especially if you want more money to go to your family than to the government. Not all estate planning attorneys make decisions on the basis of taxes, so it is important to find an attorney with tax experience or hire an accountant to review your estate plan.

Each year, Congress defines an amount of money that will be exempt from estate tax. The 2011 and 2012 rates exempt the first $5,000,000 ($5 million) of an individual’s estate from federal taxes. This amount may seem high, but remember that the total value of your estate includes not just the money you have in the bank, but also the value of your home, car, jewelry, electronics, and all other property. The worth of your estate can grow quickly, and it is important to have a plan to reduce the amount in taxes you must owe.

Clever estate planners make use of two tools: the credit shelter trust and the marital deduction.

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Am I Responsible for the Debts of My Deceased Spouse?

spousal debt - community debtAn individual’s estate is responsible for repaying any debts that the individual left outstanding at death. The executor of the estate will use the individual’s assets — either cash from bank accounts or money gained from liquidating property — to pay back creditors.

Spouses of deceased individuals may worry that creditors will attempt to collect from them after their husband or wife passes away. As with many questions in the law, the answer to whether you are responsible for the debts of your deceased spouse is: “it depends.”

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Dying Without a Will

Intestate SuccessionIf you die without drafting a valid will, you are referred to as having “died intestate”. When this happens, the distribution of your assets is governed by your state’s intestate succession laws; essentially, the state automatically applies a standard set of rules for the distribution of your property in the absence of any specific instructions you would provide in a will. Each state deals with intestacy slightly differently, though there are some general rules.

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