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New couples should handle legal matters

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE – Marriage is all about new beginnings, and this beginning is the ideal time to take care of business related to the end.

A will is the legal document that specifies how a person’s assets and property are to be disbursed after death. A prenuptial agreement is a legal document that specifies the division of property and assets if a marriage is dissolved.

Bobbie Shaffett, family resource management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said couples should have a will to ensure that property ownership and the care of any children is arranged while they are alive and well. Many couples choose to draw up a prenuptial agreement before marriage when they bring significant assets or income potential to a marriage.

“In Mississippi, if a person does not leave a written will, the state decides how belongings will be distributed,” Shaffett said. “Couples starting out in life may not want to think about this, but they should have a will to protect their belongings in the event they both die.”

In Mississippi, if one spouse dies without a will and has no children or grandchildren, the property goes to the surviving spouse. But if that person has children, the property is divided equally among the surviving spouse and children.

“Many couples assume that whatever they have will go to their spouse if they die, but without a will, that won’t automatically happen,” Shaffett said. “This can leave parents without the resources to care for themselves or their children as the deceased spouse intended.”

Deborah Gaddis, Extension forestry specialist, said the lack of wills in Mississippi has left a lot of timberland in unsettled estates.

“Owners have died and the land titles have not been deeded to the next generation,” Gaddis said. “Often there are multiple heirs, and some may not want to settle it because of fears over the cost of the settlement.”

The ownership of land not transferred in wills can be spread quickly over several people and more than one generation, making a complicated legal mess.

“If the heirs want to sell the property or get clear title to it, they have to find all the other heirs and get each of them to sign off on the decision,” Gaddis said. “They also have to advertise a certain amount of time to make sure no other heirs come forward. Children outside of marriage have the same rights as those in marriage, so this brings another twist to some cases.”

Gaddis said landowners who are preparing to marry may want to retitle the land in both names to establish joint ownership.  However, if the marriage ends in divorce, this means the property will be part of marital assets. For estate planning purposes, this also may be a bad idea.

An individual marrying a second time may want their property to go to their children rather than the second spouse, or they may prefer an arrangement that allows the surviving spouse to use the property, with ownership of the land going to the children upon the spouse’s death.

“This is a complicated matter with myriad options available to individuals and couples,” Gaddis said. “Talk to an attorney who is knowledgeable about land and personal property issues before drawing up a will or other legal document with your spouse.”

The MSU Extension Service has several publications addressing these issues, including Planning Your Estate and Where There’s a Will There’s a Way. These documents are available online at http://www.msucares.com/pubs or from local county Extension offices. Additionally, family resource management area Extension agents can offer educational programs on wills.

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Released: Jan. 14, 2010
Contact: Dr. Bobbie Shaffet (662) 325-3080