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Don't let the state choose your hiers

You've amassed a few significant assets in your lifetime, but you don't have any direct descendants and no other relatives you care to consider your heirs. So, how do you decide who should be the beneficiary of your estate?

This is an important question. If you don't make some decisions about this issue, the likelihood is that a judge eventually will. Your hard-earned wealth could end up going to people that you don't necessarily know (or like) -- or it could be gobbled up by the state.

Here are some things to consider when you're choosing your heirs:

1. You can pick almost anybody you choose

You can name relatives, friends, virtual strangers or organizations as beneficiaries in your will. People of means who don't have anyone specific that they want to leave their assets to often choose to endow scholarships, grants and charitable organizations instead. That way, they can continue having a positive effect on the world long after they're gone.

2. Creating a trust may help you achieve certain goals

Trusts can be written to benefit almost anybody -- or anything. If, for example, you love your dogs more than you love people, you can fund a trust for their care after your death. The wealthy heiress Leona Helmsley famously left her Maltese a fortune, and one of the heirs to the Astor fortune left thousands to a New York animal clinic for the treatment of needy pets.

3. You can also direct certain benefits straight to an heir

Life insurance, bank accounts and some other assets can be transferred directly to your designated beneficiaries and bypass your will entirely. You just have to make certain that you have beneficiaries properly listed on all your forms.

If you're uncertain about what you can do with your estate when you're gone, it might be wise to talk to an attorney about your legal options.

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