One of the oldest forms of an estate plan is the Last Will and Testament. With this plan, you create a Will that specifies who is to receive your assets after you are gone. You also select your Executor, who is the person you appoint to distribute your assets according to your Will after probate.
Contrary to what some people have heard, a Will does not shield you from probate, it virtually assures it. The only exception is where your total gross estate is considered a small estate in the state in which you live. Your state sets by law a minimum value at which probate must be conducted. For example, in California, the minimum probate threshold is $166,250 while in many other states, the minimum threshold is as low as $50,000. While your estate must still usually meet the minimum dollar threshold, a Will cannot be enforced until the court validates it through the probate process.
A Will allows you to name your executor and specify who should receive your estate. Without an official Will, the state will distribute your estate (net of all the probate related costs) under state law, not your wishes.
You may be surprised to learn that if you are married when you die with no Will, and leave a spouse and children behind, the state will often give 2/3rds of your estate to your children and 1/3rd to your spouse. This may place your spouse in financial jeopardy and if you leave behind minor children, the resulting cost and complexity that ensues will not only tie your family’s hands but eat away financially at your estate.