Some children and spouses worry that their inheritance will be less than zero, a large debt. And in fact, a parent or spouse can leave behind a much more expensive, complicated, and time-consuming mess than is necessary.

A little planning and professional consultation can make a substantial difference in what you leave behind, as a recent article in The Street details.

For many, creating a will is “the least you can do”

A well-drafted and fully updated will can greatly improve the ease and speed of settling your affairs.

It can clearly tell your family where to find all your assets. For example, do you have a safety deposit box? How will your family access it? What is in it?

Also, how should they use its contents? A will can help control where your assets wind up and what it costs to get the job done.

Having no will: Not the way to live

When you die without a will (called dying “intestate”), New York writes your will for you, in the sense that the state’s laws control the process and decisions. It makes those decisions through probate.

The state approves an executor, who tallies up your debts and assets and then distributes assets to creditors. The priority for paying them depends on the law as the probate court applies it, allowing some debts to cut in line and receive their payments first.

Easily available “liquid assets” like cash and bank accounts might be enough to pay off your debts. If not, the priority moves to the next steps, digging into more tangible assets.

Different debts usually handled differently

Debt on a card with a joint account holder becomes the responsibility of that surviving account holder. It the spouse is not a joint account holder and does not live in a community property state, the card company is usually out of luck.

The rule is similar when someone dies with student loans. Any cosigner is responsible for the loan. If there is a spouse in a community property state, they may be responsible for the loan. Without either of these, the lender may be out of luck.

For assets like houses and cars, the estate pays them off if it has enough funds. The property then goes to any joint holder of the mortgage or car loan, along with the responsibility to make any remaining portion of the debt.