Write a Will
When a person dies, one of two things will happen.
If they have a will, a specified trusted person is appointed as the executor of the will. That person ensures that the will is executed and the estate is divvied up per the deceased's wishes. The executor also generally handles funeral arrangements and receives a small fraction of the estate as an honorarium.
Without a will, the person is said to have died intestate (i.e., without a testament). Their estate is administered by a special probate court, which distributes the estate according to a legal formula. This formula varies between states, but it generally divides the estate among the deceased's next-of-kin.
If you have dependents, it's irresponsible not to have a will:
- It ensures that your estate will be divided up as you intend,
- Executing a will is faster and easier for your heirs than passing the estate through probate, and
- It's not difficult to have a will drafted!
If you're willing to entrust this process to a Web site, there are plenty of online businesses that can help you write a will—LegalZoom is probably the most popular.
I'd suggest seeing a local attorney in person, though. This stuff's important enough to warrant an in-person conversation. Expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to a couple thousand, if your situation is especially complex. I'd consider this money well spent.
While you're at the attorney's office, consider having a living will drafted, too! This will ensure that your health-related wishes are followed if you're unable to make them yourself.