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Protect Your Family's Inheritance - Have A Will

A recent Consumer Reports survey estimates 70% of the people in this country don't have wills.

There are several documents that parents and anyone else who wants to control the disposition of their assets must have. They're not costly. Having a lawyer prepare them runs around $500. Or, you can do it yourself with software like Nolo's Willmaker.

A Will. It can be quite basic, one that passes everything to your spouse (or whomever) and then - for families - into a trust for minors. It should name an executor to transfer the title of your assets and a guardian to raise your kids. They don't have to be the same person but attorneys caution against naming a couple as guardians: In case of divorce, that's asking for trouble.

Durable Power of Attorney. This gives someone the ability to handle your finances - write checks, sell stocks and so on - if you're incapacitated. The person you choose may double as your executor but, again, this is a must.

Advanced Directives. You need a living will that specifies whether you want life support, and a health-care proxy that gives another person the right to make health-care decisions for you if you can't. (Doctors sometimes ignore living wills, but having one can help guide the person with the proxy.) Parents should also ask about an authorization for health care for a minor child, which gives your delegate the right to consent to medical care for your kids. That's an especially good idea if you travel without them.

A Family Trust. Parents' wills should dictate that assets flow into a family trust rather than directly to minors. You name a trustee who can spend the money for things like health care and education. Then, typically when the kids turn 25, the money is parceled out in chunks. Note: You may be tempted to split the assets equally among your kids from the moment the money arrives in the trust. Don't. Lumping the funds together gives your trustee the ability to use discretion, just as a parent might.