Reality: If you own anything, you have an estate.
Everything you own is part of your “estate”; this includes your home and any other real estate (even if there’s a mortgage on it), bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts, life insurance, business interests, automobiles, boats, furniture, gun collection, stamp collection—the list goes on. No matter how many or how few things you have in your estate, you can’t take them with you when you die, nor can you adequately control them or direct who gets them if you become disabled.
Since no one will get out of this life alive (we all know death is a when, not an if), and since many of us will become disabled prior to death, you will want to give directions regarding what happens to your stuff at the appropriate time. The alternative is that if you’re disabled or when you die, other people will make decisions on your behalf, and these decisions might be public and expensive.
To make sure your wishes are followed, you will need to provide legally valid instructions that clearly set forth whom you want to receive your stuff, what you want them to receive, and when they are to receive them.
At the same time, you’ll want to ensure that all this happens with the least amount of involvement by others (especially courts and other professionals) and with the lowest possible amount of expense (including taxes and other fees).
You will also want to provide proper instructions about your health care wishes—namely, whether you’ll want to have life-sustaining procedures performed on your behalf, whether you want to take part in organ donations or medical research, and related decisions that someone may otherwise need to make on your behalf if you haven’t provided legally valid instructions beforehand.