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Resolution 6: Protect your family
Tough questions made easy: Answer them now and sleep better at night.
December 13, 2005: 11:37 AM EST
By Donna Rosato, MONEY Magazine
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NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - There's a simple reason that 55% of Americans don't have a will: "It's difficult to talk about death and money," says Colleen Barney, author of Best Intentions: Ensuring That Your Estate Plan Delivers Both Wealth and Wisdom. And it's even harder to make emotional choices about, say, who will raise your kids.

But ignoring the topic could one day leave those tough decisions in the hands of a probate court judge. Try reducing the tension in the situation with a highly pragmatic approach.

1. Start the conversation

Accept from the start that there will never be a good time to talk about your own demise. So don't wait for one. Instead:

Use the back door Raise the subject with a reluctant spouse by talking about someone else's messy situation -- say, a co-worker who is battling his siblings over a parent's estate. Then shift to your own situation.

Focus the discussion The key questions to answer: Who will inherit your assets? Who will be guardian to your kids? Who do you want to be executor of your estate?

Make a date Schedule a consultation with a family or estate lawyer. The need to show up at the appointment with your decisions made will help keep you on task.

2. Choose a guardian

Deciding who will care for your kids is the toughest part of writing a will. Arguments over who's best -- you want your sister, he wants his mom -- can shut down the whole process. Turn it into a practical exercise:

Make a list Jot down possible guardians and have your spouse do the same. Anyone you both name makes the short list.

Score the candidates Ask yourselves: Is this person healthy? Is the family okay financially? Do they share your values? Get along with your kids? Are they willing?

Split roles Still not sure? Consider appointing one person as the financial guardian to manage the kids' money and another as the personal guardian to care for them on a day-to-day basis.

3. Make it public

Discuss your choices with the guardians, your children and your extended family. Write a letter explaining how you want your children to be raised and another about how you'd like your possessions to be divided and why you made those choices.

4. Write the will

This is the easy part. If you're under 50, are in pretty good health and have less than $2 million in assets (which means you won't owe estate tax), you can write your own will with software like WillMaker (nolo.com; about $50).

If your estate is large or complicated, or you just want some professional hand-holding, hire a local attorney with estate-planning expertise. To locate one in your area, go to findlaw.com.  Top of page

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