As a young woman I worked for a bank in a branch office. Prior to opening each morning, the teller assigned to the task, went through the newspaper obituaries. If any of our customers was reported deceased, the teller placed a hold on their accounts, including joint accounts, and sealed their safe deposit box. Sometimes, even people with a Last Will and Testament, left their relatives in a bind when the only place that held a copy of the will was the sealed safe deposit box. Waiting for a probate judge’s order to open the box takes time and costs money. Anytime you have to go to court for anything, you should see dollar signs. However, many people did no planning at all, dying intestate, meaning without a will. We had a saying at the bank, “If you don’t have a will, the state has one for you.” You may intend for all your worldly possessions to go to your spouse but, depending on the state where you live, without a will, state law may dictate your estate is split evenly among your spouse and children, no matter what the age of the children. Don’t assume your children will do the right thing by mom or dad and give the money back to the surviving spouse. And with probate courts inundated with cases, an attorney recently told me it can take up to a year for an estate with a will to get through probate. This is reality, folks.
We all know someone who died suddenly, perhaps from a heart attack or car accident. Yet, most of us put off estate planning thinking, “We’ll get to it later.” Yes, we all do it. Even me. Despite all the life lessons from my banking days, until recently, I had not updated my will for years. No one wants to think about dying. We are a frail type, we humans, who don’t want to face our mortality. We like to think we always have more time. We fool ourselves into thinking, ‘later’ will always be there for us. The heart attack or car accident isn’t the way we will go. Oh no, not us. The truth is we have no idea the day, the hour, the minute or the how. My dad used to joke about it saying, “Something’s gonna get ya. Nobody gets out alive.” Then, he’d laugh at his own joke. Fortunately, both he and my mother left a plan, allowing we children to grieve instead of wending our way through the overwhelming task of trying to figure out what they wanted in the way of funeral arrangements or how to pay for them. There’s enough to decide even with a will. Without a road map, it’s really stressful. That’s how family squabbles happen. And, who wants that to be their legacy?
End of life planning is complicated these days. In South Carolina, where I live, probate court can be avoided by having a trust agreement, rather than just a will. Then, there are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. And, just in case you forgot some old account someplace or another, a will can be embedded into the trust. This isn’t an ad for attorneys, but, the truth of the matter is, you probably need one to advise you on what is best for your circumstance in the state in which you live. Just in case that isn’t enough to think about, matters are further complicated by the need for Powers of Attorney for both health care and financial management. These documents cover any eventuality where you become unable to make your own decisions regarding your health and money management. Since each document is separate from the other, the health care attorney-in-fact doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person as the financial attorney-in-fact. Before naming someone to either of these positions, be sure to discuss your decision with that person asking them for their agreement to accept the task. Nobody likes surprises. This is serious business, so cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. You may also be asked to name alternates because, as we know, stuff happens, and your primary may become deceased or incapacitated themselves, rendering them incapable of carrying out the task. Your attorney will most likely ask you to name a runner up, or two. Whew!
Although this is a serious subject requiring serious consideration, action and, let’s not forget, money, it is the best gift you can give to your survivors. Despite my feet dragging on the matter of updating my planning, the big lesson – well one of them – I learned in life is this. If you don’t make a decision and take action, time and circumstance will make the decision for you and you may not like the outcome. To that, someone said to me about making a will, “What do I care? I’ll be gone!” If you care about your survivors, whether spouse, children, siblings, significant others or grandchildren, give them the gift of not having to squabble over your health care, funeral arrangements and money. Give them the gift of being able to just grieve without worry about the details because you left a detailed plan. And, one last thing – no excuses – dreary as it is, there’s no time like the present to create your plan.
Good and important advice for everyone. Sorry for the loss of your friend. I hope you made that call to your attorney for an estate review and will update. It’s very stressful to be an adult child left in charge of a parent’s unplanned affairs after death. I went through it, as I’m sure many others have done. So I have a will, a health care directive, a power of attorney, and other documents all ready to go!
Thanks for the reminder.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!
Excellent advice. I am amazed at how many of our friends don’t have wills. When I ask them why not, they often tell me that the topic is too gruesome. Others have complicated family situations with children from first, second, and third marriages where current partners can’t agree on how the estate should be distributed. In these families, a will seems most important, yet writing it is put off. It’s human nature but it’s very sad that such important matters are neglected.
As the Queen Procrastinator, I can relate to this post….that said, I made a will….and just revised it….not the most fun thing I’ve done….but it’s done! Thanks for the push & prod….and good sense.
Thank you Kathy for raising these points. As a practicing attorney who is beginning the transition to retirement, I really appreciate your insights, so I thought I’d share one from the legal profession.
You wrote: ““What do I care? I’ll be gone!” If you care about your survivors, whether spouse, children, siblings, significant others or grandchildren, give them the gift of not having to squabble over your health care, funeral arrangements and money.”
When I read that report I cringed and saw $$ signs. That sort of sentiment is exactly what causes “Will contests” and probate court battles.
A professor of law I spoke with relayed what he called the “psycho-drama” of probate litigation – all the children are playing the roles scripted by the deceased parent. The subject of probate litigation is a book in itself, but the point here is that parents often do not realize the seeds of discontent they plant by their failure to state their wishes in a formal Will or Trust. After death children take scattered, and often conflicting, comments as Commands From Heaven. And, Heaven forbid they battle as mortal enemies never to speak to each other again.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I thought I’d just skim through it but found myself engrossed and not wanting to miss a thing! I plan to retire next year and you’ve helped to relieve some of my anxieties. Looking forward to your next post.