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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 20, 2006

Don’t forget about estate planning

 •  Unwed couples ‘legal strangers’

By Russ Wiles
Arizona Republic

Estate planning is a critical process for most people, allowing them final choices about transferring wealth and other key decisions. It's no fun thinking about death or how to divide your property.

People procrastinate when it comes to estate planning, and putting off key decisions can be a huge mistake.

The drama surrounding Terri Schiavo's prolonged and very public death could have been avoided if she had written out her views regarding life support in a living will. Texas tycoon J. Howard Marshall II might never have become fodder for late-night TV comics if he had spelled out his financial intentions for much-younger wife Anna Nicole Smith.

According to estimates, more than half of all Americans lack even that most basic estate-planning tool, a will, which lets you specify recipients for your property and name a guardian for minor children.

In a 2005 survey, FindLaw .com learned that 55 percent of respondents didn't have a will, including 28 percent of adults 55 and older, 54 percent of adults 35 to 54 and a whopping 82 percent of adults younger than age 35 — even though many of these people have children.

"A will has been on our to-do list," said Amy McSheffrey, a Phoenix woman who with her husband, Aidan, vows to get serious about drafting a will to name a guardian for their two young children. "It's something you don't really want to deal with, so it's easy to keep putting it off."

Estate planning is a process with far-reaching consequences. Along with naming someone to step in to take care of your children if you're not around — or to provide help for yourself in case of a debilitating illness or injury — it also means deciding who should get your assets, and when.

For many people, it involves decisions about taxes, real estate, other investments and personal belongings — all made more complex by ties to family, friends, charities and even pets.

While most Americans won't face estate taxes under current law, that could change in a few years because big changes are on the horizon.

Although people often think of federal estate taxes when they envision estate planning, states make most of the relevant laws. Still, that doesn't mean estate planning is easy.

"It can be a complicated process, and it can be daunting," said Dean Fink, a commissioner at Maricopa County (Ariz.) Probate Court.

Children are a catalyst for couples to take estate-planning action, while sometimes delaying others.

Ernestine Bustamante-Roman and Steve Roman don't have kids yet, so they have put it off, although Ernestine says they're planning a family and intend to draft a will, trust or other needed documents fairly soon.

"A lot of things are on our plates right now," said Ernestine, an obstetrician/gynecologist who recently started a practice in Chandler, Ariz. "Protecting the businesses, our home and other assets is a priority."

When Andra Townsley's grandmother died recently, that got her thinking about getting a will, living will and healthcare power of attorney. Townsley and her husband, Joshua, live in Tempe, Ariz., with one young son and a baby on the way.

"Although my grandmother died peacefully, we saw other families struggle," she said. "They didn't have directives in place."