A will is something everyone needs, but it’s also one of the things that everyone puts off. According to the Web site www.FindLaw.com a 2001 survey found that six in 10 adult respondents said they did not have a will. That fact was especially true among younger adults.

A will is a legal document that details where you want your estate’s assets to go (after debts and taxes are paid.) It identifies who’s responsible for executing the will. It also may state who is to take care of your minor children. However, you can use a separate document called a declaration of guardianship to illustrate those wishes.

Without a will, state laws will determine how your property is distributed. Your spouse, children or other heirs could end up with less than you planned, the assets could be poorly managed or your estate could end up paying more in taxes and legal fees than necessary.

You can write your own will, which can save money. But, an improperly drafted or witnessed will might lead the court to reject it, the heirs may challenge it or you may forget to include important details. The will also must reflect state laws, which vary greatly. That’s why it’s wise to have a local attorney who specializes in estate-planning draft your will.

Also, keep these key issues in mind. A will doesn’t supersede named beneficiaries for assets such as a life-insurance policy, a retirement account or property held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship.

A few points about selecting a guardian for your children. The court will likely have to approve the guardian, but a will would improve your chances of getting the person you want. Make certain the guardian is willing and physically able to care for your children. Be certain they have the financial resources or that you provide those. They’re not legally obligated to pay for the care of your children. Also name a contingent guardian.

Guardianship ends when your children turn 18 or 21 years old. They then gain control of assets you’ve bequeathed to them. However, you can establish a trust, to manage the assets until the children reach a more suitable age to assume control.

Carefully name an executor in your will. This person oversees the will and settles the estate, ensuring that debts and estate taxes are paid. Name someone who is willing, trustworthy and capable. Also, name a backup executor. Especially important is to give the executor the power to carry out your will. For example, wills sometimes fail to give the executor power to sell assets such as real estate. The executor then must get the court’s permission, resulting in needless delay and cost.

A will also may be used to designate who is to receive personal property. Some attorneys prefer to handle this in a separate letter of instruction, because it reduces the cost of rewriting the will each time you make changes. Either way, these documents can minimize squabbling among heirs.

The will should address potential estate taxes, perhaps by establishing trusts upon your death. Keep in mind that under the new tax act the amount of estate exempt from taxes increases several times in the coming years. A poorly drafted will to establish a trust to protect your estate from some taxes could cause problems for your spouse.

Be certain to review and possibly revise the will when key events occur.

Once a will is signed and witnessed, it stays valid until it’s revoked. Unless you make changes, your property will be transferred according to outdated provisions. 

What sort of changes can affect your will? Tax laws that affect estate taxes. Also, the overall worth of your future estate, projected when your will was written, may have been underestimated – if your investments have grown or you have acquired additional assets. You may no longer own some of the assets that your will outlines. There may have been family changes such as marriages, divorces, deaths of heirs, births of additional heirs, and children or grandchildren reaching financial independence. Also, your designated executor or personal representative may no longer be available. Perhaps you’ve retired or moved to another state.

It may only take one of those changes to impact your estate plan. That’s why your will needs a periodic professional review to ensure that it remains in line with your family’s needs and your financial circumstances. It’s easy to put this review off, but the consequences of delay can be costly. Don’t take that chance.  

This column is produced by Financial Planning Associates, and is provided by R. Hutton Cobb, a Wachovia Securities financial advisor in Greenville, N.C.