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Your will is the foundation of estate planning

You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who enjoys the thought of drafting a last will and testament, as contemplating one's own mortality is hardly pleasant. Still, doing so will not only ensure that your heirs receive what you want them to get from your estate after your death, but it should also give you some peace of mind.

Even so, according to a survey by AARP, a full 40 percent of U.S. residents 46 and older have not drawn up a will. Don't be that guy (or gal). Take the bull by the horns and decide that you will do what is necessary to get your estate in order for your heirs and beneficiaries.

What should a will include?

The specifics of a will are determined by individual circumstances, assets and resources. For testators with few heirs or assets, a will can be summed up in just a few lines, witnessed, notarized and put in a safe but accessible place until it is needed. Those who have more assets, financial instruments and real property to pass on will probably want to get more granular and specific in their wills, listing legal descriptions, serial numbers and other identifying information.

It's also important to accurately describe any sentimental items you want to bequeath to your heirs. Simply stating vague generalities like, "To my children, I leave my grandmother's jewelry," is a sure way to foment familial dissension. If you have more than one child and more than one piece of heirloom jewelry to bequeath, you should specify, "To Heather, I leave my mother's amethyst brooch. To Simon, my father's gold pocket watch."

What isn't included in wills

Many people are surprised to learn that most individual retirement accounts, pension benefits and insurance policies fall out of the breadth and scope of wills and are passed onto whomever you designate separately as a beneficiary. Should you forget that you already have one person designated on your IRA or 401(k) and make a behest in your will, ownership will default back to the named designee. This is one reason why savvy testators update their wills after major changes in life circumstances, such as death or divorce.

What happens to those who die without wills?

Those dying without valid wills in place are said to die intestate. Their estates are divided according to the laws of the state of California after the probate process has been completed. This is not an optimum situation, as it does not allow you any control over your estate or who will get what. But this situation can easily be avoided by consulting with an estate planning lawyer and drafting your will.

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