We all come to the table with certain notions about the estate planning process. Much of the time, we get our information from researching on the internet, watching finance “experts” on cable television, word-of-mouth, and perhaps even our own wild guesses that we somehow manage to convince ourselves are correct. Certainly you can recall being at a gathering where some well- intentioned friend offers you some advice that turns out to be completely wrong for your situation. Most sources are not harboring any bad intentions to do us harm, but even the best intentions can have the worst consequences.

Very few of us would start tinkering around inside our computers without a basic understanding of what the different parts and wires are supposed to do. Nor would we sell real estate without consulting a professional at some step in the process. Even so, many Americans each year attempt to draft their own estate plans based on information that might be outdated, incorrect for their situation, or just plain wrong.

Like a computer or an automobile, an estate plan is finely tuned to fit your needs. You can upgrade your hard drive, pick and choose the sunroof or alloy wheels, and tailor your purchase to suit your tastes and what works best for you. The same goes for an estate plan, which can have particular aspects designed to suit your individual goals. And just like a computer or car, an estate plan should be built by a professional and it certainly needs to be maintained by one. If you have a question about whether that new operating system upgrade is worthwhile, you ask your IT professional. If you want to know whether your sporty wheels really needs the high-octane gas, you check with your mechanic. Don’t rely on un-vetted web resources or television talking heads to find out whether the will you bought in a software package suits your needs.

Keeping that in mind, this article addresses just one of the misconceptions that unreliable sources cause us to believe about estate planning in general. This misconception, which opens up a Pandora’s box of problems if we continue to believe it, is that if a married person passes away his or her spouse gets everything. In Maryland, that is most often not the case.

According to Maryland law, if the deceased has no children (with this spouse or from a prior marriage), and no surviving parents, the surviving spouse does inherit the whole estate. If the deceased has no children, but has parents that survive him or her, the surviving spouse receives one-half of the estate plus an additional $15,000, the rest going to the deceased spouse’s parents. This can be catastrophic for a dependent spouse, and can have negative tax implications for surviving parents who do not need an inheritance from their deceased child.

If there are surviving minor children, the surviving spouse gets one- half of the deceased’s estate. Add $15,000 to that first one-half if all the kids are grown. In either case, the rest goes to the children. If your children are minors, this makes things more complicated as the court must appoint a guardian of the child’s inheritance and will oversee that inheritance until the child turns eighteen.

What happens if you do not have a will and you pass away with children from a prior marriage? The result is the same as above, but consider the following scenario. Ralph has three children from a prior marriage, and remarries later in life when your children are grown. His lovely wife, Alice, has two children of her own, each of whom is over thirty years old and visits once a year.

When Ralph passes away without a will, Alice gets one-half of his estate (plus an additional $15,000). Ralph’s three children will split the remaining half, effectively receiving one-sixth each. Alice’s children (who saw Ralph once a year and barely knew him) will split one-quarter of Ralph’s estate each after Alice passes away, assuming she does not spend it all during her own lifetime. Did you notice how Ralph’s own children get less than his stepchildren who are little more than strangers to him?

As you can surely see, this one simple misconception about what happens to a married person’s estate when he or she dies comes with a vast array of possibilities for unintended consequences. How can one website or one television personality know what is right, not only in your state, but what is right for your individual life story?

A computer or a car can be tinkered with. If things go awry, it can get expensive, but most often your hazardous tinkering can be corrected. The same is not true for your estate. Once you have departed, the law speaks. Even the best and brightest of estate attorneys can not fix your tinkering after the fact.

Before you trust a website with boilerplate forms, before you rely on whatever television ‘guru’ has sold you on an estate plan that is not tailored to your situation, call us. We will take the time to speak with you personally and review your life story to make sure the last chapter ends exactly as you would want it to.