To Will or Not to Will

Pen, stamp and documents on notary public table

By Elaine Marze
Over the nearly two decades that I’ve worked for Seniors’ Asset & Family Estate Planning I’ve written many articles on what it takes to efficiently plan for older age, getting important paperwork completed and protecting assets for survivors and for long-term care patients.   For 15 years I put out a newsletter each month with personal testimonials from people who had their plans in place and those who wished they’d pre-planned prior to nursing home care and end-of-life situations.   In all these years, not once has someone said, “I’m so sorry I wrote out my will,” but plenty of folks have regretted that family members died without wills.

All of us at S.A.F.E. Planning have known people who, because of the lack of legal documents, have had divided families fighting over possessions needlessly.   Some siblings spend years in court trying to get ownership of homes and properties supposedly “Momma or Daddy“  left verbal instructions for division, but did not have a legal will.  Regardless of who wins in court, lines have been crossed that the siblings will never recover from.

I know three brothers who haven’t spoken in seven years because they had a big falling out over their dad’s gun collection.  If only that dad had specified in his will who those guns were meant for.   Even after attending numerous S.A.F.E. Planning workshops about the importance of spelling out one’s wishes in a legal document, I failed to follow my own advice.  After my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he put sticky notes on his rifles and shotguns, matching up son, son-in-law and grandsons with the firearms he wanted them to have.  He didn’t want any conflict when they were divided so he thought this method would suffice, but in the months between the time he tagged the guns and the time he passed, the sticky notes all fell off and were lying at the bottom of the gun cabinet so I had to divide them in ignorance of my husband’s wishes.   None of my guys voiced objections to what I gave them, but I felt guilty in case I hadn’t done it as my husband desired.  If he’d listed them on paper, we’d all have known his absolute wishes.   Or, in hindsight he could have given them out before he died.    Maybe somebody will learn from our experience.

Some people don’t wait till after they die for their property to be divided.  For several years my father-in-law would tell my husband that he wanted him to get the family land surveyed and get it divided between his five kids.  Finally, after my husband talked me into selling out and doing full-time RVing, and he wanted to have a home base to come and go from, they did get the property surveyed and put parcels in a hat and the siblings drew lots in front of their parents.   His sister drew the property with their home on it where my mother-in-law still lives.  Dividing the property while my in-laws were alive enabled us to have electricity and water run to our RV site in our name, and we had our own little RV home near my in-laws.  As it turned out we were glad we were parked there when an aneurysm suddenly took my father-in-law’s life.   

One thing for sure, people can be funny about Wills.  While many people are fine with drawing up their wills, others act like their death will be hastened by putting their wishes on paper.  Sometimes parents of adult children are angered or feel offended when they are asked if they have a Will. My husband and I had wills leaving everything to the other, but when he died then I had to redo it with our son and daughter in mind.  I didn’t feel threatened that one of my kids was going to knock me in the head so they could get their inheritance although I have heard that excuse.  Instead I felt relieved because I want everything clear so there will be no reasons for discord when I’m gone, even though I trust my son and daughter to do the right thing, why take chances?   Too many family relationships are damaged when there’s a “free for all” if there are no concise directions for distribution.  Few if any parents think their kids will “fight” over what’s left … but it happens … a lot.  Ask any attorney.

Special provisions can often be included in a Will and estate documents to help protect assets in case a surviving spouse needs long-term care.  These provisions are missing from most Wills because too many people don’t think that far ahead.  But they should!

Just saying, if you haven’t taken care of pre-planning for the ultimate going-away journey, you may want to call our office and make an appointment.