If you reside in Tennessee and die without a will, the distribution of your estate is governed by state law. Tennessee Code (T.C.A. 31-2-104) sets out the rules for which family members would receive your property. Here’s the problem: those rules may or may not reflect what you would have wanted.

If you leave no descendants of your own but were married at the time of your death, then your estate will go to your surviving spouse.

However, if you pass away without a will and are married with children, your entire estate will not pass to your spouse as many clients often request in their will. Instead, your estate would be divided between your spouse and each of your children, with the spouse’s share not to drop below one-third (1/3) of the estate.

June 15 was World Elder Abuse and Awareness Day, a yearly recognition begun in 2006 to call attention to the growing problem of fraud, abuse, neglect, and exploitation directed at elders. An estimated 5 million older Americans every year are victims, according to the Department of Health and Human Service’s National Center on Elder Abuse.

Seniors are especially susceptible to scam artists. But sometimes unscrupulous family members or associates can also be guilty of exploitation, fraud, or abuse.

There are several steps you can take now to protect your loved ones and yourself from falling prey to scams and other exploitation in senior years. A Tennessee estate planning attorney can help you with many of these defensive steps.

I probably hear some variation of this concern more than any other in consulting with estate planning clients: the desire to avoid probate. Whether they have heard horror stories about probate or have been through a rough experience themselves, many folks see avoiding probate as an important way to ease the burden on their loved ones after they pass.

There are two bits of good news for Tennesseans with this concern. First, the probate process in Tennessee is relatively straightforward and inexpensive compared with many other states. In itself, probate is nothing to fear. In fact, sometimes a little court oversight and help from an attorney can help assure surviving family members that they are handling affairs properly.

Second, and more importantly, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that most if not all of your assets will be distributed outside of the probate process, just in the way your assets are titled. You just want to make sure that, if you are titling your assets as part of your estate plan, that it is done with purpose and an eye on the big picture. A good estate planning attorney can help you think through this process.

Most everyone should have a Last Will and Testament. Wills not only allow you (and not the state legislature) to determine how your assets will be distributed after your death, they also can help avoid costly and divisive family squabbles. For families with minor children, however, a will is especially important. There are two fundamental reasons why:

First, a Will is an appropriate place to nominate a guardian for your minor children in the event that both parents pass away. Parents who want to have a say in who will be appointed to raise their children if they are unable need to take affirmative steps to communicate their wishes.

There are several factors parents may want to consider in deciding whom to appoint as guardian:

Consider this Estate Planning 101, an introduction to some of the most important steps to take in planning for the future. Most people are aware that they need a Last Will and Testament. But that is not the only essential document in an estate plan.

Below is a list of the 4 essential documents every estate plan needs. As you will see, estate planning is concerned with more than just what happens after you pass away. In fact, the first three documents are designed to assist you and your loved ones during your lifetime:

  • General Durable Power of Attorney – Who should handle your affairs if you are unable to do so? A General Durable Power of Attorney authorizes a person of your choosing to act on your behalf (as “attorney-in-fact”) in matters other than health care decisions while you are still living. This includes everything from paying your bills to filing your tax return. Because it offers a broad authorization to handle financial matters on your behalf, a Power of Attorney should name someone that is responsible, and that you trust completely.

Recent reports indicate that musical mega-star Prince may have passed away without a will or other estate planning in place. If that is true – a very big IF – his inaction will likely cost his estate millions of dollars in federal and state tax bills. In addition, contentious lawsuits seem certain to erupt over who are his rightful heirs, how to value his estate, and how to distribute and manage his complex assets.

Prince fought mightily to retain control over publishing rights and sound recordings. But now, if he is indeed without a will, he will have no say over how those interests will be preserved. The laws of the state of Minnesota will make those decisions for him.

Prince also closely guarded his privacy during his life. But now, assuming he did not protect his assets through effective estate planning, the nature and extent of his assets and their distribution among his heirs will play out very much in public.

What happens if you and your siblings inherit property from your parents, and you don’t agree on what to do with it? (what, siblings disagree?) Can you force the sale of the property?

In Tennessee, in many instances, the answer is yes, through an action called a partition.

This need often arises when a parent dies without a will, or their will divides their real estate, which might include a family home or the family farm, equally between children. In that case, each sibling would own the property as “tenants-in-common,” (also referred to as co-tenants) which means you each own an equal share of the entire property. All co-tenants have the right to use all of the property and share in any profits from it. When disagreements arise about how to use the property – say one sibling lives on the property and wants to stay, another wants to rent it out, and you want to sell it altogether – Tennessee law is clear that co-tenants have the right to partition real estate.

Do you store pictures online? Have a Facebook account? Keep documents in the Cloud? Or use online accounts to maintain certain aspects of your life? If so, you should be aware that earlier this month Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that could impact what happens to those digital assets after your death.

The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) is designed to make sure you control what happens to your digital property after you pass away. The law addresses concerns that online accounts containing assets of personal significance or even monetary value may be simply deleted upon a person’s death, or that loved ones will be refused access to digital property.

Oregon’s Karen Williams faced this dilemma while grieving the loss of her 22-year-old son, Loren in 2007. She revisted memories of his life by accessing his Facebook account, where he kept pictures and stories. When Facebook learned of his death, however, the company changed the password, denying her access, and sparking a lawsuit over control of his property. Ultimately, she won a court order, but as Associated Press reported, “she never received the full access she sought.” The account was subsequently deleted.

Country music legend Glen Campbell is engaged in a very public struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, a common form of dementia. Campbell announced his diagnosis in 2011 before embarking on a farewell tour with his family, which was documented in the feature film, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.” The film depicts in sometimes painful detail the impact of Alzheimer’s, not only on the person afflicted with the disease, but also on the loved ones faced with finding the right care and making decisions for someone no longer able to make decisions for himself.

The “Rhinestone Cowboy” is now in a long-term care facility with round-the-clock care.  After facing numerous health care issues and a legal challenge from two of his children from a previous marriage, his wife Kim is speaking out to help families dealing with the cruel disease, which affects about 6% of the over-65 population. “Estate planning is very important,” she said, according to a Lexington Herald-Leader report. “Advance health care directives are also very important.”

Kim Campbell is right. Planning ahead for health care crises can alleviate much of the anxiety for both the patient and his or her loved ones, and should be a standard step in every person’s estate planning process.

What if your spouse has passed away and you were left out of their Last Will and Testament?

Maybe the Will was prepared before you were married, or before you even met. Maybe they intentionally attempted to disinherit you. Do you have any options as a surviving spouse? In Tennessee, the answer is yes. Tennessee law protects the surviving spouse from being left out in the cold.

But it is important to secure those rights according to the timelines and procedures laid out in the law.