The terrible cost of not having a will
My brother Ross recently died of complications from lung cancer. He was 40.
Ross left a wonderful personal legacy. He was a good father, friend and coach. He was a dedicated educator who devoted his career to working with children with emotional, developmental and physical disabilities.
But like many Americans, my brother failed to take care of his financial affairs even after receiving the diagnosis that his cancer had progressed and that he might not have long to live. He just wouldn’t or couldn’t follow through on advice to prepare a will. Tragically, he was a single parent who left no written instructions regarding guardianship for his 3-year-old son.
As shrewd as she was, even my grandmother, Big Mama, who raised me and was a great money manager, refused to prepare a will. She kept saying she didn’t need one, that everyone knew her wishes. Well, most didn’t and some who did ignored what Big Mama wanted. Upheaval followed her death, leaving broken relationships that have still not been mended after 17 years.
Death is hard enough to deal with, but toss in a family with unresolved issues along with no instructions from the deceased and you have discord at the very time you most need order.
I’m so weary from going to funerals — and I’ve been to way too many — where the deceased didn’t take the steps needed to either eliminate or at least mitigate fights over his or her assets or to appoint a guardian for the children. I’ve witnessed the horrible fights that erupt when people die without updating their beneficiary information or even naming a beneficiary. Deserving survivors become wounded when they learn their loved one didn’t have a will and, as a result, assets are distributed to spendthrift relatives.
Please, I’m begging you to get your financial affairs in order, especially if you have children or you are responsible for taking care of someone. Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. I’ve heard many of the excuses, so allow me to address some of them:
●“I don’t want to think about dying.” That’s what happened to my brother. He couldn’t really face his illness. But death came anyway, and major decisions that needed to be made weren’t. Is this what you want to leave behind — confusion? This isn’t just about you. It’s about the people you love and being responsible and courageous enough to make the hard decisions.
●“It’s too much paperwork.” There are a lot of essential documents that need to be assembled: a will, bank statements, insurance polices, retirement and pension information, guardianship instructions, advance medical directives, or perhaps powers of attorney. Yes, it’s a pain pulling all these documents together. On the other hand, if something does happen to you, the last thing your family wants to do is have to dig through your clutter to piece together your financial life. If you can’t find your paperwork, how will they? Set aside a day to prepare what’s called a “letter of instruction,” which is a master list detailing what financial documents you have and where you keep them.
●“It’s too expensive.” And chaos is cheap? Trust me, it’s not. You can get a will drawn up inexpensively. You can go to nolo.com or legalzoom.com to get do-it-yourself wills done for less than $100. Or pay a few hundred dollars to a lawyer to prepare a will. If your estate is a bit more complicated, then please spend the money for an estate attorney.
●“I don’t have much to fight over.” A car could be left to a relative in need of transportation. The proceeds of a life insurance policy could go to a responsible person who will at least pay for your funeral. Your children are worth planning for, aren’t they? You may have been avoiding this selection because the pickings are slim for guardians or you can’t imagine anyone raising your children like you would. No one really can. They won’t be you. So find the next best you. You may select one relative to raise your child and another, better at handling money, to be responsible for managing the child’s inheritance.
Having a will doesn’t guarantee peaceful management of your estate. But without a will, decisions about your money, your belongings and your children will be left up to state law, and the things you value the most could be given to someone you would have never chosen. Please don’t assume people will do the right thing when they are grieving.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.