Dying "intestate" may sound like a gut-wrenching way to go. And while it has nothing to do with your physical state of being, it can leave your loved ones with lingering pain.

When you die intestate, you've passed on to the great beyond without leaving behind a will or trust. In such cases, your friendly state government takes over and follows prescribed inheritance formulas. Or, as one Fool wrote to us: "When someone dies intestate, that's lawyerese for, 'Oh boy, let's see how much I can get out of this!'"

When the state takes over, your family sits in limbo as your estate lingers in probate -- possibly for years. Your assets are divvied up according to a stranger's prescribed recipe, and your Aunt Ida, the animal shelter, and anyone else you wished to leave your money to may never see one red cent.

To avoid such an unhappy ending, here are three recommendations to make your passing go as smoothly as it can:

  • Find an attorney who is thoroughly versed in estate planning. Your divorce lawyer or patent guy probably won't hack it. Get ready to meet by having these important documents ready.
  • Stay up to date on tax changes. They affect your planning documents.
  • Make sure that the right people know where to find these documents. Remember, it's a question of when (not if) they'll be needed.

Start lining up your ducks now so that your family -- not the state's lawyers -- sing your praises after you're gone.

For hands-on help getting your affairs in order, read on:

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This article was originally published on Jan. 16, 2004. It has been updated by Dayana Yochim. The Fool has a disclosure policy.