Everyone remembers to list their house and car when drawing up their last will and testament. But what about Mom’s painting, or Dad’s quirky Christmas tie, or the chipped porcelain cake plate that came from “the old country” four generations back?

Value is a subjective term when it comes to heirlooms. You may want to rethink the list of possessions you plan to bequeath to children, grandchildren and other relatives and friends, to include items that could hold tremendous sentimental value for them.

Sadly, forgetting these items can undermine even the most careful inheritance plans and unnecessarily drag out the probate process.

Many a family rift is rooted in misunderstandings over who claimed a trinket that wasn't even mentioned in a will. Look no further than comedian Robin Williams' family: sure, there was dispute over valuables and money, but Williams' widow and children also fought viciously over possessions that carried little more than sentimental value.

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Worthy nonprofits rely on the big hearts and generous gifts of their donors. Unfortunately, there are plenty of unscrupulous nonprofits that use donations to line their owners’ pockets.

The Federal Trade Commission outlined one of the biggest shams in history earlier this year, charging four agencies with fleecing donors for $187 million. The Commission alleges that the agencies claimed donations were helping buy pain medicine, hospice care and other services for cancer patients including children and women with breast cancer. In fact, the Commission said the money really went toward execs' cars, vacations, tickets to sporting events and other luxuries. Two of the agencies have closed down and won't re-open.

How do they pull it off? And how can you make sure your hard-earned dollars get to those truly in need?

How to tell the saints from the sinners

One thing the allegedly fraudulent agencies counted on was that donors weren't paying attention to details. They gave their enterprises

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The idea of a “living” will is counterintuitive, isn’t it?

A will, after all, is a document you prepare to determine what will happen with your assets when you’re no longer living. Except that a living will doesn’t really have anything to do with money. And then there’s a living trust. Which is, actually, much more similar to a will. Confused?

If you’re asking what the difference is between the two, the answer is, well, almost everything. What the two documents do have in common, however, is that they are both created and take effect while you are living. They are also documents you should use in your estate planning journey.

Living Trust

A living trust (for these purposes usually created as a revocable living trust) serves a similar purpose as a last will in that it provides for the distribution of your assets. However, because this document is created and goes into effect while you are still living, you have the ability to continue to manage your assets as long as you’re mentally capable.

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Estate planning may not be as easy as jotting down your wishes on a bar napkin, but it can be done safely and quickly with a little guidance. Here are seven common estate planning mistakes to avoid, and why they matter.

1. Forgetting to destroy copies of any previous wills created. This can cause legal battles (and long ones at that), as heirs/beneficiaries discover multiple wills and argue over which one is valid.

2. Creating wills after health decline. Creating a will document or living trust after you have been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s or other severe mental incapacity can cause problems of validity. Even wills created in the early stages of a disease are sometimes challenged in court (usually by someone who feels slighted and is looking for more inheritance). This is one good reason why even young, healthy people should be proactive in creating their last will document while able-bodied, and updating it as their assets and family continues to change and evolve.

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According to a recent survey, fully half of American adults do not have a will or living trust.

A will explains how you want your property to be distributed after your passing. A living trust contains similar information, and can also help your loved ones avoid probate.

What happens if someone passes and never had a will or living trust? Legally, they have died intestate.

What Does Intestate Mean?
Investopedia defines intestate as “The act of dying without a legal will. Determining the distribution of the deceased's assets then becomes the responsibility of a probate court.”

In other words, dying without a will means you give the courts the responsibility of deciding who has a right to your estate, and how much each person will receive. They will appoint an executor (an administrator) for your estate; this executor will need to collect your assets, pay your debts and settle your estate. The courts would also decide who will become the guardians of your minor children,

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How Is a Medical Power of Attorney Different from a Living Will (Health Directive)? How Is a Medical Power of Attorney Different from a Living Will (Health Directive)?
A living will (AKA advance directive) is related, but very different from a medical power of attorney; here are the differences between the two legal forms. Read More »
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