Whatever the size of your estate, an estate plan can help you rest easier, knowing your wishes will be honored when you die or if you become seriously ill. A solid plan can also make a sad time easier for your family.

Your Last Will and Testament

This document outlines who gets your worldly possessions, which may include money, real estate and mementos. A will can also:

  • Name a guardian for your children
  • Provide for the care of your pets
  • Designate how to pay your final expenses

If you don't have a will when you die, Wisconsin's intestacy laws will determine who gets your estate. In general, your spouse will receive everything, unless you have children from anothe relationship. If you do not have a spouse or children, your nearest living relatives will share the estate.

Your Estate and Probate

Probate is a court-supervised process for verifying the validity of your will and distributing your assets. Probate is also time-consuming and expensive, so many people try to set up non-probatable assets to avoid it, such as:

  • Accounts with designated beneficiaries: Financial accounts such as IRAs or annuities transfer directly to the people you designate.

  • Property with joint ownership and right of survivorship: These assets also transfer directly to the co-owners outside of probate.

If your estate consists only of solely owned property valued at less than $50,000, your heirs may be able to claim it with a small estate affidavit.

Your Financial Decisions

What will happen if you become seriously ill and unable to pay bills or make other financial decisions? You do not need to worry about it if you create a durable power of attorney, which gives someone you trust — your agent — the authority to do these things for you. You can limit the powers you give and under what conditions those powers become active.

Your Health Care Decisions

If you can't make your own decisions, having these two documents can help ensure you receive only the medical treatment you want:

  • A living will spells out your desires about the use of life-sustaining procedures, like a breathing machine or a feeding tube.

  • A power of attorney for health care authorizes one or more people to make decisions about your treatment and access your health records if you are unable to do so for yourself.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services offers downloadable forms you can use and customize. These documents will be valid only if you and two witnesses sign them.

Other Wisconsin Estate Planning Considerations

What else do you want to safeguard if you die? If you have dependents, you may want to review your life insurance policies to be sure they are sufficient to meet your needs. If you have a business, be sure you have a plan in place for transfer of ownership or dissolution. Also consider whether the value of your business could result in an estate tax bill for your heirs.

Estate planning is subject to both state and federal laws, which can change often. It is a good idea to have a Wisconsin estate planning lawyer help you create your plan.

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