Denise Palmer Cockrum expected her husband’s will to protect her from trouble after he died.  But the DIY will the couple created wasn’t signed or notarized correctly.  Now she finds herself  in Dorchester County Probate Court fighting for her home.

“It’s procedure after procedure,” she told News 2’s Rebecca Collett during a taped interview in her home. “I just feel so overwhelmed.”

Without a will, a judge determines how to divide up assets in an estate.  In this case, the big question is what will happen to Denise’s home.  The mortgage is in her late husband’s name, though they acquired and maintained it together. His children, from a previous marriage, are legally entitled to half of his assets. 

Tiffany Provence is a former Dorchester County Probate Court judge. She is now in private practice. She’s leery of DIY wills.

“To save $75, you can cost yourself thousands,” she explained.

In intestate case, cases without legal wills,  fighting among family members is common, Provence explained, drawing on her experiance on the bench.  Through a  will, you identify your personal representative. That personal can facilitate selling your home, settling your debts, and makes sure you final wishes are carried out.

“Argument over who’s going to be the personal representative can delay the opening of an estate by  months and month,” Provence explained.

And through a will, you can appoint a guardian of your minor children.  If  you don’t name someone, a judge will pick.

The will also outlines who gets what from the state.

“We can spend significant time dividing up china, jewelry, and dad’s gun collection,” Provence said.

Finally, your will can be drafted to save on estate taxes and will likely save your estate from attorney fees.

Provence says a common misnomer gets many families in trouble. 

“This one runs rampant: that my spouse gets everything. That’s just not the case,” she explained. “Absent a will, 50 percent goes to your kids and 50 percent goes to your spouse.” 

When a will doesn’t exist, state law dictates what happens to your estate, which can include a house, car, savings and other assets. The laws vary between states. A surviving spouse may be entitled to everything in one state but only one-third in another.

Provence says while you’re getting your will detailed, it’s a good idea to also set up a healthcare and durable power of attorney.  If at any point you can’t make your own health and financial decisions, you have someone who can.