If you don’t have a will, make one. If you have one, review it to be sure that it describes your current situation. These are two of the most basic principles of estate planning.

Why are wills so important? Without a will, you have left your estate planning to your state government under its laws of intestacy. First, a local court will have to appoint an administrator to manage your estate. This person, possibly a stranger to you, will have to be paid. Second, even if your surviving spouse is named the administrator, he or she may have to post a financial bond. Third, the amount of time required to settle your estate may be unnecessarily long at a time when the financial security of your family is particularly important. Fourth, your estate could unwittingly pay more federal and state taxes than necessary. And fifth, your surviving spouse may receive less than half of your separate property, depending upon the state law and the number of other surviving family members, including your children, parents, and siblings.

Your will should serve a number of purposes. In a way, a will can be a very personalized roadmap of what you want done with respect to your property and your personal wishes. It is primarily responsible for describing how you want to distribute your property after your death. A will also lets you name a guardian to care for your minor children if you die or become incapable of caring for them. Finally, a will lets you name your executor, the person who will oversee the settling of your affairs after you die.

In short, your will allows you to give direction and authorization to others to act on your behalf after your death.

You are not required to use a lawyer to prepare your will, but you must follow some very precise rules in writing and signing the document. While there are many print and software publications to help you with drafting a will, it is better to seek professional counsel in this area. An attorney will ensure that your will meets all the legal requirements and minimizes the chance of any misunderstanding when it is read. An attorney can also give you the advice you need on how to change and store the document. Either way, it doesn’t take much to get started: just a good sense of what you own and an understanding of your goals and objectives.

If you amend your will or prepare a new one, you should destroy copies of all previous wills.