Most of us stand a much greater chance of reading about celebrity tragedy in the pages of People than of appearing in the magazine ourselves.

That doesn't mean we can't learn a lesson or two from the unexpected death of Anna Nicole Smith. I can say that this tabloid sensation's sudden death, which left behind a five-month-old girl, could happen to any of us. It probably wouldn't be covered by the paparazzi with quite the same intensity, but it would still be calamitous to your family.

For some of you, it's much more fun to contemplate your toenails than to think about the possibility of your unexpected demise, but it's worth considering long enough to take the necessary precautions. Take a look at the places where Anna Nicole slipped up so you don't make the same mistakes.

If you have dependents, you'll want to name a guardian to take care of your children in the awful event that you and your spouse meet your end at the same time. It's probably much easier to do this if you're not involved in a paternity battle that could significantly complicate matters. Anna Nicole's infant daughter, reported to be under the care of friends in the Bahamas, could face a pretty unstable future if her lineage isn't decided pretty quickly. Give some serious thought to the kind of life you'd like your children to have if you're not around to make it happen.

This, and other information, belongs in your will. Attorneys currently don't know whether Anna Nicole had a will. If not, her estate will be subject to the laws of her country of residence. (Apparently, there are questions about that, too, since she had taken up living in the Bahamas.) Leaving your estate subject to state laws means the state, not you, will make the decisions about who administers your estate, how final bills get paid, how your assets will be distributed, and who will care for your children.

You can take control of those decisions by writing a will or updating an existing will to lay out your wishes. If you have the simplest of situations, you might be able to take advantage of do-it-yourself books and software. For anything more complicated, you may choose to see an estate-planning attorney.

But some simpler things can also make the transfer of your assets go smoothly. Make sure to update the beneficiary information on your retirement accounts. This is especially important if you've recently divorced or married. Hold your property jointly if you want your spouse to immediately inherit the assets. You can find more details about the importance of a will and other legal documents in this section of the Retirement Center.

Also, make sure to update the beneficiary information on your life insurance -- and to carry life insurance. Depending upon the final outcome of Anna Nicole's legal battles over her late billionaire husband's estate, her daughter could stand to inherit hundreds of millions. If things don't go her way, she may get nothing. In either case, the legal wrangling could take years. In the meantime, the infant's immediate needs could be taken care of with life insurance. Make sure your family can make do if you, and therefore your contribution to the family income, disappear. Take a look at the life insurance section of the Insurance Center for more information.

Keep these and other records in good order, someplace where someone can find them after your death. The disposition of Anna Nicole's estate may hinge upon whether she had really married her attorney, something that's not evidently been proven. If you have a complicated family life, a will and proper documentation become even more important.

This sounds like an overwhelming task, and it can be complicated. Tackle one thing at a time, and you'll get it done. Leaving this important work unfinished could subject your family to a lot of trouble and heartache if the worst case does occur.

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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple welcomes your feedback.