FAMILY

If you die without a will, the consequences for your loved ones can be disastrous.

For most millennials, getting a will is likely at the bottom of their to-do list -- if it even makes the list.

"People don't want to talk about death," says Byrke Sestok, a certified financial planner with Rightirement Wealth Partners in White Plains, N.Y. But if you die without a will, he says, the consequences for your loved ones can be disastrous.

A will spells out how you want your assets distributed after your death, and it names an executor to handle these transfers. Otherwise, you will die intestate, meaning your state decides how to distribute your property and funds, generally starting with your parents if you're childless. Even if you want to leave everything to your parents, a will streamlines the process, says Jeana Salman, a CFP in Atlanta.

Two other documents may be even more important than a will for single, healthy millennials. The first is a durable power of attorney, which names the person who can manage financial matters on your behalf if you are unable to (say, because you've become incapacitated or you're simply unavailable because you're traveling abroad). The second is an advance medical directive, which defines your end-of-life wishes concerning life support and more. You'll also name a person to carry out those decisions on your behalf, either within the medical directive or in a separate document.

If you don't specify your wishes or designate a health care agent and you fall into a persistent vegetative state, you will likely be kept alive artificially by default, says Steven Schindler, a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle.

You can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a basic estate package, depending on where you live, the complexity of your estate and the experience of your attorney. On your own, you can designate beneficiaries for your bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.

Another aspect of estate planning that millennials need to worry about is maybe the scariest one of all: What happens to your digital assets when you die? Facebook defaults to memorializing your account (you can appoint a "legacy contact" or choose to have it deleted instead). Google lets you choose up to 10 trusted contacts who may download data from your Gmail, photos and more if you become inactive for a specified amount of time. Most states have enacted or introduced laws that govern how an executor can access digital assets, but a lawyer can help you tailor a plan to legally authorize someone to handle them.

Think about the person (or people) you want to appoint as your executor and to have power of attorney for both health and finances. The best person to make financial or medical decisions on your behalf may not be the one you feel closest to.

You can find an estate planning lawyer through your local bar association or the directory on your local Estate Planning Council's website (find links at www.naepc.org). Before hiring a lawyer, check to see whether your employee benefits include free estate planning.

(Miriam Cross is an associate editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.)

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