A Will is the document that allows you to declare who gets your belongings and other assets when you die. The Will
explains who you wish to handle your estate (a personal representative) and how you wish to distribute your personal property and other assets that haven't been distributed according to beneficiary forms or simply transferred to a joint owner. A Will does not avoid Probate Court involvement. A Will is most commonly used with smaller estates.
A trust is a legal arrangement you can make for the management and distribution of your property during your lifetime, upon your death, and for future generations. You, as the person making the trust (often called a "Settlor" or "Grantor"), transfers ownership of certain assets to another person (a "Trustee") who is in charge of managing and investing the assets and making distributions to trust beneficiaries. A trust can be revocable or irrevocable. The terms of the trust are spelled out in a written trust agreement signed by both the Settlor and the Trustee.
Most probate cases are handled as "informal probate." This means that the supervision of the case can be handled informally by a probate registrar and without the involvement of a circuit court judge. "Informal probate" cases are frequently settled without anyone having to appear for even a single hearing. However, if an issue or the entire settlement of an estate is contested, the case is handled as "formal probate" and will be supervised by a circuit court judge. In a "formal" case, a judge presides over evidentiary hearings in which the parties present evidence and arguments (oral and/or written). The judge issues formal orders that the parties must follow.
A Financial Power of Attorney authorizes the people you have designated as agents to manage your bank accounts and other assets in the event of your incapacity. A Health Care Power of Attorney allows you to authorize another person to manage your health and personal care and to consent to (or refuse to consent to) proposed medical treatment if you are unable to do so. Both types of Powers of Attorney should avoid the need of a court appointed Guardian and can be executed by someone over the age of 18 who has capacity.
A court appointed Guardian is sometimes necessary to handle an incapacitated person's health care and/or financial decisions. Guardianship of the Person is necessary when someone is unable to make decisions about their health and living situation or when a child does not have a parent who is able to act as his or her natural guardian. Guardianship of the Estate is necessary when an individual, including a minor, is deemed to be unable to make financial decisions. In many cases, Guardianship can be avoided if the proper estate planning documents are executed.
A Marital Property Agreement is a document that explains how each asset owned by a married couple should be classified. There are several types of classifications under Wisconsin's Marital Property Law. The most common classifications are "marital" or "individual" property. Couples can use Marital Property Agreements to separate assets for distribution to people other than a spouse and to protect assets from the debts of the other spouse. Marital Property Agreements can apply at divorce and death of either party or just apply at death of one of the spouses.
A Partnership Agreement for Couples (often called a "Co-habitation Agreement") is a legal agreement between two people who live together but who are not legally married. The intent of the Agreement is to prevent unnecessary cost and litigation should disagreements arise or should co-habitation end. The Agreement covers such topics as responsibility for daily living expenses and the division of jointly-owned property.