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You can't take it with you, but will you say who's supposed to get it when you're gone?

Americans are slow to spell out their final wishes or instruct their families on how they want to be cared for should they become incapacitated.

An estimated 120 million people in the United States don't have an up-to-date estate plan, according to the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils.

Upon death, that can cause uncertainty about who should act as a guardian for surviving minor children, and it can increase the potential for arguments between grown siblings on how to divide an estate.

The lack of a plan also can force heirs into a potentially lengthy and expensive court process known as probate.

"If you don't have an estate plan, the state of California has a plan for you. And it may not be what you want," said Linda Lampson, an accountant and director with Zanier Rinehart Clarke in Santa Rosa.

Valentino Sabuco, the Rohnert Park-based executive director of the association's education foundation, wants Americans to consider the difference that such planning can make.

"Estate planning is not just for the wealthy. It's for everyone," Sabuco said.

Nonprofits that serve seniors echo the same views on the value of an estate plan.

"At the end of life, after you're gone, it's amazing how the family members can squabble if there's no direction," said Barbara Swary, an attorney and the director of legal services for the Council on Aging in Santa Rosa.

The potential for fighting goes beyond the division of houses, bank accounts and equities, experts said. It can include those items that hold sentimental value, including heirloom jewelry and other longtime family items.

Christina Clem, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons, recommended that even those who want to write their own wills still take their drafts to a qualified attorney for review.

"It's something that you definitely want to make sure is done correctly," she said.

An estate plan should include a will or living trust that specifies the division of your estate and names a guardian for any minor children, experts said.

But it also should provide instructions in case you become unable to make decisions for yourself due to injury or old age. One key document, called a durable power of attorney, authorizes another person to take financial actions on your behalf, such as selling property or making investments. A second, called an advance health care directive, details your wishes for end-of-life treatment.

On the horizon is looming the issue of your digital estate: your email, social network and other cloud-based storage accounts.

"It's a totally new phenomenon that people should actually have a conversation on," Clem said.

Dr. Bruce Bragonier, a Sebastopol orthopaedic surgeon, met this week to update his own estate plan with his financial advisor, Sharon Zimmerman of Northwestern Mutual in Santa Rosa.

"Estate planning is essential to the financial foundation of the future success of my family after I'm gone," he said.

His two sons, ages 11 and 15, are part of "the future generation that I at least want to give a financial start to."

People may resist estate planning because it means thinking about death and because it requires making major decisions and finding the right professionals, experts said.

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

"People are starved for time," said Zimmerman. As such, estate planning is an easy task to delay. But taking the time to do it can offer peace of mind and can provide the chance to enjoy "a few moments of clarity" about what really matters.

Joni Fritsche, an accountant with Burr Pilger Mayer in Santa Rosa, said the planning process also can provide the chance for valuable communication within a family and improve the chances that there won't be a battle over the estate after your death.

By explaining your decisions ahead of time to your heirs, Fritsche said, "the children and grandchildren know what to expect and they've all worked through that together."

The plan can be especially important in blended families, where a surviving spouse otherwise can end up with the entire estate and later pass it on to his or her children or to a new spouse.

For those without a will, "property could end up with people they never intended," said Frank R. Bailey III, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in estate planning. The deceased person's natural children might receive nothing.

A will or trust doesn't affect certain accounts, including 401(k) and individual retirement accounts. Experts said people at death often pass on proceeds from those accounts to ex-spouses because they never designated a new beneficiary.

And creating a will won't prevent your heirs from going through probate if you have qualified assets of more than $150,000, the experts said.

Probate fees are set by the state and based on a sliding scale. As an example, combined fees for the executor and attorney could amount to $46,000 for an estate valued at $1 million. Completing the probate process takes a minimum of seven months but often upwards of a year or more. During that time the estate's assets can't be distributed to the decedent's heirs.

One way to avoid probate is to have enough property and financial accounts held jointly with a spouse or other relative. Nonetheless, many people choose to set up a living trust in order to stay clear of the court process.

Costs for an estate plan can vary widely. Sabuco said the cost can range from a few hundred dollars to upwards of $4,000 to provide a will or living trust, plus the durable power of attorney and advanced health care directive.

For those ready to get started, one way to get educated and to prepare your financial records is to visit such online sites as the AARP and the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils. People can gather recommendations on qualified attorneys, either from their current financial professionals or through friends who have gone through the process.

Those aged 60 and older can attend a free estate planning seminar from the Council on Aging. The nonprofit on Nov. 8 will begin the first of two workshops to help attendees create a will, a durable power of attorney for finance and an advance health care directive. Reserve a space by calling 525-0143, ext. 142.

Another resource is the local chapter of the national estate planning group, the Redwood Empire Estate Planning Council, www.redwoodempireepc.org. All the professionals interviewed for this article are either current officers or past presidents of the group.

Be leery of opportunities to buy financial products, such as annuities or reverse mortgages, and as a reward receive a living trust at a bargain price, said James Lamping, president of the 100-member Redwood Empire council.

Lamping, an attorney whose offices include Santa Rosa and San Francisco, said a good estate plan can remove a major opportunity for grown children to battle after a parent has died.

"When people are fighting, it's never about the money," he said. "What they're really fighting about is the emotion ... It's &‘Mom loved me more than you.'"

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