True or false: When you pass away, your family members will automatically be taken care of, even if you have not made a comprehensive estate plan.

If you think that statement is accurate, you may be estate planning by default, a dangerous practice that can cause serious financial problems for your estate and your heirs. In fact, estate planning without a specific goal can lead to a variety of unintended consequences, according to experts in the field.

First, even married couples should know that they are not entitled to all of their deceased spouse’s property under Florida state laws. Assets that are not owned jointly, such as 401(k) retirement plans or IRA accounts, do not automatically pass to the spouse after the owner dies; rather, they pass on to family members based on other legal requirements. The only situation in which a spouse is guaranteed the entire estate: The couple has no children and the decedent’s parents are dead.

Without an estate plan, many East Coast residents agree to give their spouse the first $250,000 in assets, plus half of the remainder. The other assets are automatically transferred to the couple’s offspring. Add in other complications, such as children from a previous marriage, and the estate distribution can become extraordinarily confusing. These laws differ by state, but the general principle remains the same: Without an estate plan, you cannot guarantee that your assets will be distributed in the desired fashion.

Keep in mind a complete estate plan includes not only a will, but also a durable power of attorney and a living will. Health care provisions, such as the designation of a proxy or other decision-maker if you are incapacitated, can also be helpful. If you have not drafted your own estate plan, your heirs may still receive some of your assets, but the distribution of these holdings will be designed by the state. A qualified probate attorney can help every Florida resident prepare for the inevitable by creating an appropriate estate plan that aligns with his or her wishes.

Luis E. Barreto