Dying With a Will Could be the Least of Your Problems

Advanced estate planning can’t include every “what-if” scenario. In my wife’s family things didn’t exactly play out like they’d planned. Her parents each wrote their own obituary years before their deaths…or so we thought. It turns out that Anne’s mother authored both obituaries. Her mother’s read that her husband “preceded her in death” and his said, “He was survived by his wife.” In all their planning, she couldn’t imagine he would outlive her…but he did, by three years.  

Sometimes, advanced planning can produce unintended results if it’s not revisited regularly. My mother and father made their Last Will and Testament in 1960 when they were 38. Almost 40 years later, after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s, my mom died. Eight months later dad remarried. Since my dad was several years older than his new wife, the two felt he would likely be the first of them to die. They had a conversation about how he’d care for her in that event. Dad even wrote down “conversation with Peggy” in his pocket calendar. But he never followed up.

Page from dad’s pocket calendar

Two short but happy years after they had married, my dad died. Without an updated Will, the interests of his wife catapulted into uncharted waters, along with those of my sisters and me. He died without a legal Will, or intestate, meaning the State determined who his beneficiaries were and how his estate would be settled. In dad’s situation, the intestacy laws didn’t mesh with his conversation with Peggy and with what he hoped to leave to his children.

We made it though

Finding a compromise on the emotional assets, the personal property, was challenging. The weekend we moved personal items out of Peggy’s house was harder than it needed to be for all. It was painful for Peggy to see her home furnishings split up and taken away. It was painful for my siblings and me to leave behind those things from our parents that represented our childhood. We reached a compromise on the financial assets and 15 years following dad’s death, Peggy, my sisters and I (and our families) are committed to each other.

How do I avoid leaving a mess?

Even though 60% of US adults do not have updated Wills, the answer involves more than simply “Having a Will.” A successful outcome has an emotional component and a practical component; the two are inseparable.

The practical side of the process

It’s about creating a net worth statement and keeping it in your lock-box or emailing it to a trusted individual. It’s about finding and labeling keys to lock boxes. It’s about spelling out which personal items go to whom. It’s about making a Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and Desire for a Natural Death. It’s about checking your retirement account beneficiaries. It’s about making a list of your internet logins and passwords for your commercial accounts and also your social media accounts. It’s about discussing Trusts or financial assets you’ve arranged for your children. It’s about gathering your life insurance information and checking your beneficiaries. The list goes on…

The emotional side of the process

It’s about having open, honest conversations with your spouse, your children, trusted friends and your executor. Conversation is essential and it may not come naturally. It’s about writing your own obituaries. It’s about talking with your loved ones about how you’d like your life to be celebrated. It’s about listing your favorite organizations or charities to include in your obituary. It may be about forgiving someone who’s hurt you, or receiving an apology that’s been extended to you. It may include giving your blessing to your husband or wife, your parents or children, grandchildren, even those folks you’ve played bridge or golf with for thirty years. It could include making a recording or a video telling your family and friends how much you loved them, how much they mattered to you, imparting wisdom or advice, admitting mistakes, conveying your excitement about their futures; this could even extend to grandchildren not yet born. And this list also goes on…

Next Steps

Over the years, we have been a part of this process for many friends and clients. While we have seen a wide range of in terms of preparedness, they all have one thing in common: when one dies, they leave behind loved ones who hurt. Poor planning, or simply saying “I’m OK because I have a will” heaps work, frustration, and confusion on top of an already painful time.  This is why preparing before the day comes is so important; it is one final way to say, “I love you”.

We have put together a sort of checklist and inventory to assist in thinking through both the practical and emotional pieces. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but spending some time in these areas will get you one step closer to making a world of difference at a time when it will be needed most. Call or email us and we can put a time on the calendar to run through it. From there, you can begin to tackle the items on your own or we would be happy to help walk you through the process.

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Jonathan Smith
Jonathan is responsible for protecting the mission and vision of the firm, our clients, employees and their families. He listens for what’s important, looks for what hinders success and comes up with techniques to remove threats to sustainability. He likes to say that sculptors do something similar; they start with a block of granite, take away what isn’t supposed to be there and presently the statue comes into view.
Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith

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