The last will is a document that most people are familiar with and is the most common estate planning tool. In fact, many movies have romanticized the proverbial "reading" of the last will of a deceased family member. We can all imagine a family gathered in a lawyers office as the will is read, letting each person know what they received, or did not receive, from the estate.
Most people know that there are other legal instruments that can be utilized. But a lot of them are under the impression that only people of extraordinary wealth need to step outside of the tried-and-true last will as a primary vehicle of asset transfer.
In reality, people of ordinary means may want to consider alternatives to a last will when they are making plans for the future. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most compelling one is the fact that your estate must be probated if you use a last will.
The process of probate can slow things down considerably. During this interim the probate court examines the will in an effort to determine whether or not it is valid. So, at this time interested parties who may not agree with the contents of the will could step forward and present challenges. This can result in a long and drawn out legal struggle. Just think back to the case of Anna Nicole Smith. That battle was just resolved last summer some 15 years after it began.
Probate is also a source of asset erosion. There are costs that the estate will incur while it is being probated. Depending on the size of the estate, the nature of the assets contained therein, and whether or not there are any challenges costs could reach 4-8% of the total value of the estate and in some cases even more.
Most people are not going to be fully informed when they start making plans for the future. The worst way to plan is to rely on Hollywood's representation of what an estate plan should look like. The best way to gain an understanding of how to proceed given the unique nature of your circumstances is to consult with an experienced, savvy estate planning attorney.