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Estate plans outline last wishes, duties

By Bonnie Coblentz

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Most Mississippians leave to the courts the decision of who gets their kids, money or assets when they die, but experts urge everyone to think carefully before letting this happen.

Wills and estate plans are legal documents that specify how a person's assets and responsibilities are to be handled after their death.

Bobbie Shaffett, family resource management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said if a person dies without a will, state law decides what will happen to that person's property. It does not mean the state will take the property, only that the property will be divided according to law. Having no will may be acceptable for those with no family complications and little property.

“If you have concerns about how your assets will be divided, then you should look into drawing up a will,” Shaffett said. “People with no blood relatives, those with children from a previous marriage and those with significant assets especially need a will.”

Anyone who owns items of sentimental value may want to designate the person who will receive these items.

“This can prevent disputes over who gets these family treasures,” Shaffett said.

William Howell, an estate planning attorney in Jackson, said less than 25 percent of Americans do estate planning.

“When you do accumulate some investments, it's time to start looking at ways to protect them and pass them on,” Howell said.

Those who plan for what happens to their assets after their death tend to be evenly divided on whether they use a last will and testament or a living trust.

“A will is only for death distribution; it does not deal with a person who is alive but incapacitated,” Howell said. “A will requires an attorney, must be probated in chancery court and is public information once it is filed.

“A living trust has an effect while you are alive. It provides protection in the event you become incapacitated, and when you die,” Howell said. “The person you have designated steps in without an attorney and manages exactly like you have written down.”

A living trust is not a matter of public record, does not have to be probated and is governed by contract law.

Howell said some people include a trust inside a will, but this testimony trust must be probated in court before it takes effect.

A living will is yet another legal document that spells out a person's health care wishes, such as whether or not that person wants to be put on life support.

“Today this is called an advance health care directive. Everyone needs one of these,” Howell said. “It includes a power of attorney and a statement of what you do and do not want done.”

Howell said a complete estate plan package includes several very detailed and very personalized documents. He cautioned against do-it-yourself wills and estate planning.

“There is no one to ask questions of and to make sure you're doing it right and including all that needs to be included,” Howell said.

Shaffett urged everyone to put a lot of thought into the question of what will happen to them or their belongings after their death or if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.

“You never know what tomorrow may hold, so we should not delay in seeking information and making wise decisions,” Shaffett said.

The MSU Extension Service offers publications on an advance health care directive and estate plans online at


Released: Feb. 16, 2006
Contact: Dr. Bobbie Shaffett, (662) 325-3080

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