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Released: August 08, 2007

Think of Your Will as a Road Map

PAOLA, Kan. – Whether you like it or not, sooner or later, you will need a will.

Without it, basic end-of-life tasks such as arranging a funeral service may have to be put on hold, said Diane Burnett, Kansas State University Research and Extension agent in Miami County.

State laws vary, but without a will, a state, rather than an executor designated in your will, may step in to distribute your assets, excluding of course, assets that may have to be sold to cover legal fees and court costs.

Let others know
your wishes …

PAOLA, Kan. – The Health Information Protection Act – HIPA, as it is called – is meant to protect privacy by limiting access to medical information, said Diane Burnett, Kansas State University Research and Extension family and consumer sciences agent in Miami County.

Should an accident or sudden illness – a stroke is an example – make it impossible for you to make healthcare decisions, who would you like to make decisions for you?

To make sure that a family member, trusted friend or physician can make such decisions for you requires a legal document called a durable power of attorney for healthcare decisions.

Failing to share a copy of the document along with contact information about your designated decision-maker with your physician may, however, foil your good intentions, Burnett said.

“Keep everyone in the loop,” she said. “Talk about your plans and provide copies of the documents to those who need to know – a spouse or family member, physician, and designated representative – so they will be able to carry out your wishes.”

More information about end-of-life documents is available at any county or district K-State Research and Extension office.

Think of a will as a road map, in that it directs your executor to carry out your wishes, said Burnett, a family and consumer sciences agent who has a master’s degree in family financial planning.

For many people, a fairly simple will may be all that it takes to make your wishes known and protect assets and personal property, she said.

Making a will need not be complicated – or expensive, said Burnett, who suggested organizing key information (listed below) before your appointment with an attorney:

* Full name, as it appears on your birth certificate;

* Current address;

* Brief description of assets (real estate, financial accounts, safety deposit box, etc.) and where related documents are located;

* Name of guardian (and an alternate guardian) for minor children;

* Specific bequests (such as which son or daughter is to have grandfather’s roll-top desk);

* Funeral instructions; and the

* Name of executor, a family member, trusted friend or legal adviser, whom you trust to carry out your wishes in managing and distributing your estate.

To organize personal information, Burnett suggested downloading the document “Our Valuable Records,” K-State Research and Extension publication #MF 685 that can be found at Click on publications and type in publication name or number.

“A will must be signed and dated before two witnesses, but there’s more,” said Burnett:

“Ask your executor if he or she is willing to serve in this capacity, and, if so, let them know your attorney’s name, when you have completed or updated your will, and where the will is stored.”

If you have a safety deposit box and store end-of-life documents in the box, make sure that a family member and/or executor knows where the box is, has signed the access agreement or contract for the box, and knows where the key is kept.

While a safety deposit box is generally considered a good place to store legal documents,

if a death occurs over a weekend or holiday, a family may have to wait to access to the will.

“An attorney will keep a copy of a will executed with their guidance,” said Burnett, who advised keeping a second copy in a sealed envelope at home and telling the family where the will (and other important documents) are stored.

Providing your executor with a copy of your will in a sealed envelope with instructions to open it when you die also can be a good idea, Burnett said.

Placing an adult child, sibling, or executor on the access list for a safety deposit box and telling them where the key is kept is important, particularly if a worst-case scenario – a husband and wife are killed in the same accident – should occur, she said.

Parents of minor children (or grandparents with custody of grandchildren) are advised to appoint a guardian and an alternate guardian and to spell out how assets should be managed for and later distributed to children, said Burnett. She recalls making her first will when her youngest child was only six weeks old, before she and her husband took a trip to Hawaii. The couple has three children.

The couple has since updated their will one time, but has an appointment later this month to do another update.

Burnett recommends updating a will every five years OR whenever a life change should occur. Graduating from college, getting married (or divorced), starting a family or making a major move are examples, but updating your will also is a good idea if the situation or relationships change with those chosen to be the guardian of your children or executor of the will.

Appointing guardians for minor children can reassure children, who will know that their parents chose someone to care for them.

A simple will also can provide an opportunity for forgiving debts, such as an educational loan to a grandchild, Burnett said.

A handwritten will (that is dated and witnessed) can sometimes suffice, but a legal document prepared by an attorney who is familiar with the laws (and procedures, which are sometimes called “formalities”) of the state in which you reside is recommended, Burnett said.

Don’t know an attorney? Ask someone you know and trust for a recommendation. Also, ask about fees for preparing a will prior to scheduling an appointment. If you don’t know someone to ask, state legal organizations (such as the Kansas Bar Association) usually can provide a referral. Information on the KBA’s Lawyer Referral Service is at or via a toll-free number: 1-800-928-3111.

More information about end-of-life documents is available at any county or district K-State Research and Extension office.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Nancy Peterson
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Diane Burnett is at 913-294-4306 or