When New Jersey residents die without an estate plan, the state decides what happens to their assets and who the guardian for any minor children will be. These decisions are based on state law and might not be the choices they would have made.

A will is only one part of creating an estate plan. Retirement accounts and life insurance policies are among the assets that pass by beneficiary designation. People may also be able to fill out payable-on-death forms so that their bank accounts pass to another individual. Assets with no beneficiary or for whom the beneficiary has died will go into probate, a process that can last anywhere from several months to years. People who own a home might consider how they want to title it and if they need a plan that will protect the home from creditors.

An important part of the estate plan is choosing the right people for various roles. An executor has a number of tasks, including paying debts and taxes and making sure beneficiaries get assets. People may also want to appoint individuals using powers of attorney to make medical and financial decisions on their behalf if they are incapacitated. An attorney may help in ensuring that documents are prepared correctly and in determining if a trust or other vehicles are needed.

An attorney may also help review an estate plan to determine whether parts of it might need to be updated. This should be done whenever there are big life changes, such as marriages, deaths, births or divorces in the family, or simply every few years. Even if there are no big changes in a person’s assets or family, there could be changes in laws that mean an estate planning strategy should be revised.