State law generally provides that your property will be passed to your heirs - usually your spouse, children, grandchildren, and parents. The laws involved in estate planning - known as "intestacy" laws - can be complicated, and vary from state to state. You can easily find some of the most important laws for your state here.
If you are satisfied with the distribution laws as provided by your state, you probably don't need a will. However, you should note that distribution of your property when there is no will usually takes significantly longer. Additionally, intestacy generally does not cover issues like guardianship of minor children.
If you want to distribute your property in a manner not provided for by state law, you can use a will or other document to ensure that your property will be distributed in the way you want, as well as to express your wishes regarding guardianship and other matters.
Because state laws vary significantly, hiring a competent estates attorney is usually the best way to ensure that your estate plan can accomplish everything you want. A trust and estates attorney is one who specializes in the area of estate planning, usually using trusts, wills and other documents to ensure your wishes are carried out.
To find a good estates attorney, consider the following factors:
Referrals - Ask your friends for a referral. Lawyers know each other, so if you have a friend who's an attorney, even if they specialize in a different area, ask for a referral - odds are good that your friend has a friend who is an estates attorney, or knows someone who knows someone. You should also ask any prospective attorney you are considering hiring for referrals. A good attorney will not balk when asked to provide referrals.
Check the state bar web site - Attorneys are licensed by states, and each state bar maintains its own discipline records. Search their records (usually available online) to make sure any attorney you are considering does not have a disciplinary record.
Check for expertise - Many state bars have specialties. Check to see if your state has an estate planning specialty, and if so, whether the attorneys you are considering are certified in that area. If you have particular areas of concern - for example, setting up a trust for a disabled child - be sure the attorney you hire has experience in that specific area.
Ask about fees and payment - Good lawyers are upfront about their fees. Ask for the retainer or fee agreement in writing, and be sure you are comfortable with it. If the lawyer will be handling any funds for you, be sure there is a well-documented client trust fund so that all of your money will be accounted for.