Estate planning is an important, though awkward, topic. Most people over the age of 18 need to plan properly to make sure their wishes are followed and their loved ones are shielded from protracted legal battles. Laws are similar throughout the United States, but Michigan differs in some details.

Writing a will

A will outlines how you want assets divided. It also can spell out custody of minor children if there are any. It names a personal representative who is legally responsible for seeing that assets are distributed and the debts are paid. It is perfectly legal to write your own will—Michigan even recognizes hand-written wills—but an estate planning attorney can make sure everything is phrased correctly. In Michigan, wills must be witnessed by two adults who aren't inheriting anything; three are preferred.

Learn more about finding and evaluating an estate planning attorney.

Probate

Your heirs could wind up in probate court to settle matters such as debts and taxes even if you do have a will, though in cases where there's a surviving spouse who inherits everything, probate is not necessary. A will can smooth the path when probate is necessary, as can other mechanisms such as trusts, joint ownership or transferring property while you are alive. A faster probate process is available for estates worth less than $17,000.

Power of attorney

A power of attorney document ensures that someone can take care of your business if you become incapacitated. It can be as broad or as limited as you want. You can limit the powers to paying bills, or you can allow assets to be sold. You also can create a medical power of attorney designating someone to make decisions if you are unable to.

Health care decisions

Advance directives make clear your wishes about medical care. Though Michigan does not recognize living wills unless a patient has been diagnosed as terminally ill, you can designate a patient advocate who will carry out your wishes in regard to life support. Learn more about advance care planning.

Funeral arrangements

Burial, cremation or donating their body for research are among the options people will want to discuss with their loved ones. These plans also can be outlined in a will or letter of instruction. Potential organ donors should register and make sure loved ones know they have done so. Prepaid funeral arrangements can be dicey and might not always cover costs after inflation. The Michigan Attorney General's Office offers advice on points to consider before agreeing to such a contract.

Other considerations

Unless you have assets worth more than $5 million, you do not need to worry about structuring your estate to avoid taxes. Even small business owners need succession plans, though, to protect their employees and loved ones after their deaths. Those whose death would financially harm a spouse or children should consider a life insurance policy that will replace some of the lost income. Beloved pets or beloved causes also can be taken care of in wills.

This article is a general look at estate planning. Contact a Michigan estate planning attorney is you have questions about specific situations.

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