By several estimates, more than half of all American adults do not have a will.
For those who do have a will, it is important to make regular review of its provisions.
"A good rule of thumb is that whenever anything significant happens in your family, it's always wise to take a look at how things are structured," said David Sergeant, a Fort Dodge attorney.
Planning ahead can save tremendous amounts of grief and strife for one's survivors, said Fort Dodge attorney William Thatcher.
That is particularly true for people with young children, he said.
"The most important thing they can do for that child is to make the decision of who is going to be the guardian of that child?" Thatcher said.
In addition to naming a guardian, Thatcher advises parents to name a trustee to oversee any money - that from a life insurance policy, for example that may be left to one's children.
"You can make sure the money is invested wisely and used appropriately," he said.
A will should be simple and direct so that its provisions can be easily interpreted by survivors, Thatcher said.
In addition to making disposition of major property and assets, Thatcher advised people to keep a handwritten list of minor items that states to whom each should go.
A will can make reference to such a list, he said.
Items that may have more sentimental than cash value can often cause more discord, as there is no way to divide the individual item among survivors, Thatcher said.
While it's easy to give each sibling an equal share of their parents' bank account, Grandma's antique rocking chair or Dad's hunting rifle can only go one place, Thatcher said.
Making a list ahead of time can forestall some disagreements, he said.
Though there is no hard and fast rule as to when a person or family should put together a will, Sergeant said that once someone starts obtaining assets - real estate, investments and other property - it's a good idea to start thinking about it.
If a person dies without a will, their property can be divided by state statute, rather than whatever wishes they might have had, Sergeant said.
"A will tells people who rightfully owns things," he said.
A will is more than just a piece of paper, however.
By Iowa law, all wills, to be valid, must be in writing and signed both by the person to whom it pertains and by two competent and disinterested witnesses.
In other words, anyone who stands to inherit through the will is out as a witness.
Should a person wish to amend their will, it is not necessary to start from scratch, so to speak.
An attorney can prepare what is called a codicil to make minor changes.
In addition to having children, children leaving home also qualifies as a significant occurrence that may warrant a will review, he said.
Even barring major changes, reviewing a will every three to five years is prudent, Sergeant said.
"Get your will out and look at it once a year," Thatcher said. "Actually read it."
Once a will is written, signed and witnessed, it is important that it is kept in a safe but easily accessible place, Thatcher said. He recommends safety deposit boxes to his clients.
"There's a record of who accesses a safe deposit box," he said. This can help prevent tampering - or suspicion of tampering - among survivors, he said.
"Spite is very expensive," Thatcher said.
Contact Jesse Helling at (515) 573-2141 or email@example.com