If you don't have an estate plan for your family, there are five things you can do for free to make sure you at least have some basic tools in place.
1. If you don't even have a will, download a free will form from the California Bar Association (www.CalBar.org). It's better than nothing, and if you can't find the form, just call my office and we will send you the direct link.
2. Check your 401k's, IRA's and Life Insurance policies to make sure the correct beneficiaries are designated. In many cases you might be surprised who is actually listed (or perhaps not listed) as your beneficiary. This doesn't happen by magic or good intentions. You have to call the company managing that particular asset and ask them for a beneficiary designation form. Make sure you name "back up" beneficiaries also known as secondary or contingent beneficiaries. Also, make sure you ask the company what happens if a co-beneficiary dies. Does their share go to that beneficiary's children, or does there share go to the remaining designated persons on the form? Also, if you have minor children, you may not want them listed as direct beneficiaries. Life insurance should not be made payable to minors in most cases.
3. Who is authorized to make health care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so? Just because you are married, your spouse isn't automatically entitled to do this. This is a mistake many married people make - they assume their spouse is in charge and authorized to act simply by being married to them. It doesn't work that way. Make sure you sign an Advance Health Care Directive which allows someone to legally act. While most lawyers provide this as part of a comprehensive estate plan, you can at least get a free entry-level form from the California Attorney General's website. Again, it's entry-level but it's better than nothing.
4. Try not to own anything jointly with anyone other than your spouse. Make sure you think it through and talk to professionals before making that decision. Joint ownership seems like a good idea at first blush but it's one of the leading causes of "unintentional" disinheritance. Also, consider a living trust instead of owning assets jointly with your spouse.
5. Finally, review your insurance policies. I don't sell insurance but for families with few assets, there is no better way to infuse a whole bunch of cash to help pay for college, mortgage, etc. Also, for auto policies, make sure you have plenty of uninsured motorist coverage. I handle some personal injury cases in my practice and too many people are driving out there without adequate insurance.
If you wish to discuss any of these issues with me or perhaps set up a comprehensive plan for your family, please feel free to call me at (661) 414-7100. I also practice personal injury law, so you can also visit my personal injury website to learn more about that aspect of my practice.