You’ve just passed away. Kicked the bucket. Hit the highway to heaven. But before you made your final exit, you built a beautiful life. You left this earthly world with a lovely spouse and two great kids. You did well in your work, and you accumulated a lifetime of possessions along the way.

With your passing, your spouse is overcome with sadness and in a fog of grief. Unsure of what will happen next, she comes to see me, the lawyer. One of my first questions will be, “Did your deceased spouse have an estate plan?”

At this point in the meeting, the consultation goes one of two ways. If you, the deceased spouse, had an estate plan, we’ll review it together and get started following the instructions of that plan.

But if you had no estate plan, we’ll take a different road. We’ll start by trying to piece together a list of assets and debts. If your surviving spouse wasn’t involved in the family finances, this exercise alone will require a tremendous amount of effort tracking down life insurance policies, real estate deeds, IRA beneficiary designations, employer death benefits, Social Security, stocks, bonds, auto certificates, and more. Hopefully, your surviving spouse finds all the assets. While tracking down this information, your surviving spouse secretly prays that he or she will be financially secure without you.

Next, your surviving spouse and I will take a look at the estate plan that’s been created for you by the State of Michigan. To the surprise of many, the State of Michigan has a default estate plan for you if you don’t have your own estate plan at death. It’s called an intestate estate.

If your surviving spouse finds assets that were owned by you alone, then we’ll petition the probate court to open a probate estate. Because a probate estate is a court action, it should come as no surprise that it’s an expensive and drawn out process. But for some reason, many folks are surprised by the cost and delay. At the end of the typical 5 to 12-month probate process, whatever assets remain after paying the court costs, attorney fees, debts and taxes will go to the beneficiaries as determined by that default estate plan provided by the State of Michigan.

So when your surviving spouse asks me in our initial meeting what happens next, what do you want me to tell him or her?