Your planning needs depend on a number of factors: 1) the size and make-up of your estate; 2) the age and financial savvy of your beneficiaries; 3) your planning objectives. Without knowing all three areas in detail, it is impossible to determine the type of estate plan you need, with any degree of certainty.
A single person with no children and a very small estate can probably get by without extensive estate planning. In this case, it would be appropriate to seek out a statutory will, for example. In Michigan, the State Legislature has developed a form that can be used for people with relatively basic planning needs. That form can be downloaded for free at the following link: www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/Publications/PeaceofMind.pdf
The same source has a form for naming a patient advocate, who can make health care decisions for you, if you become incapacitated.
A general durable power of attorney should also be considered for handling financial matters.
Planning in more complicated situations
Going back to the planning considerations, if the same single person with a small estate wishes to avoid probate, he or she can designate beneficiaries on most assets. This can usually be done for no cost.
What if the situation is more involved? If the planner is married, and the assets are all held jointly, upon the death of the first spouse, all assets would pass, free of charge, to the surviving spouse. As long as the residual or secondary beneficiaries are adults, and the assets can all be distributed in a lump sum, then beneficiary designations work very well.
If there are minors involved, however, or if the objective is to delay distribution of the assets, or to stagger the distribution over a period of time, then more complex estate planning is called for. (This would not be the type of situation to look for free estate planning tools, unless the estate is very small). If the estate is small, you might consider Uniform Gift to Minor accounts or 529 Accounts.
Transferring motor vehicles
The State of Michigan has a special statute allowing for the transfer of motor vehicles after a person's death, without the need for probate. The statute is MCL 257.236. It provides that, in the event that the total value of motor vehicles owned by a deceased person is less than $60,000, and there is no probate estate open, that the vehicles can pass outside probate, as well.
The Secretary of State would then issue a new title to the vehicles. The only cost would be the title transfer charges, which are relatively nominal.
Any *heirs* under Michigan law can take advantage of this procedure. If the person has no surviving relatives, then this procedure cannot be used to transfer vehicles to a non-related friend or neighbor. Anyone wishing to make such transfers needs to make other arrangements.
What about internet sources
I am not a big fan of internet legal forms. Just because a generic form *can* be made to work in certain situations, does not mean that it is the right form for a particular person to achieve their specific objectives. Just like you would not perform surgery on yourself, or repair complicated machinery without properly educating yourself, I believe it is dangerous to use online forms, without doing the proper research and education. All forms are not created equal.
Part of the problem is that when most estate planning documents are actually *used*, the person who executed them is either incapacitated or has passed away. If there are questions or problems, there is seldom someone available as a resource to explain what needs to be done and to deal with whatever problems might arise.
Even if you do not use online forms, however, there is a wealth of information available on estate planning. There are *numerous* attorney and other financial sites where free information is posted.
Many union workers can take advantage of free legal services. UAW Legal Services provides free or discounted estate planning for auto workers, for example. There are also discount legal service providers, many of which will provide a basic Will or other documents for free, or at a very nominal charge. While I would not necessarily recommend this approach, in more complicated planning situations, for basic situations, you can speak with an attorney and have your questions answered. There is also someone to follow-up with, if there is a need to update the estate plan, or for issues that arise in the future.
For indigent clients, there are county based legal services organizations available for assistance. You can check with your county government or with the State Bar Association. For the metropolitan Detroit area, for example, including Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, the link would be: http://www.ladadetroit.org/
Many lawyers offer a free initial consultation. There is nothing wrong with meeting with such a lawyer and explaining that you are simply looking for someone to review your estate plan.
Many lawyers and other financial professionals offer free estate planning seminars, as well. Before attempting any do it yourself planning, or planning using internet forms, I would highly recommend attending a number of such seminars, so you can educate yourself to the options available.
Finally, you should also consider hiring an attorney to plan your estate. For the vast majority of clients, their planning needs are much more basic than they believe them to be. Many client objectives can be achieved for a relatively nominal fee.
You might also consider hiring an attorney to review your internet based (or any other) estate planning to make sure the documents will achieve your objectives. For a cost of $100-200, you may realize peace of mind that is worth a great deal more.
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