Men without wills: Do one, and spare your survivors some pain

John Kelly
Columnist March 11, 2013

Get comfortable! Today we’re going to talk about death.

A few weeks ago, a former colleague of mine sent an e-mail to seven of his male friends. Frank is a mover and shaker who jets around the globe on business, meets with captains of industry and bends them to his will. His wife just gave birth to their first child, and this, basically, is the question he asked in his e-mail: I guess I should probably do a will, huh?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Frank was asking his friends — all of us accomplished middle-aged men with children who stretched from toddlerhood to their 20s — how one went about doing a last will and testament. Could we recommend a lawyer? Or were those will-writing Web sites halfway decent?

The amazing thing? Of the seven men Frank e-mailed, four hadn’t done their wills, either.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Patricia E. Tichenor, a Leesburg lawyer who specializes in wills and trusts.

Patricia told me that she’s accustomed to Washingtonians putting off this vital bit of financial planning. After all, a will seems like an acknowledgment that you’re going to die — more than an acknowledgment: an invitation.

I know that for years I was convinced that the minute I finished signing my will I’d be flattened by a safe falling from a crane, hit by a speeding bus or, at a minimum, felled by a massive coronary. Why tempt fate?

Well, according to Patricia, there’s a 100 percent likelihood that everyone alive today is going to die eventually. Die without a will and you die intestate, which, to a man, sounds really painful.

“The benefit of doing a will is that the people you want to inherit your estate actually will,” Patricia said.

Don’t do a will, and things can get interesting. If you’re a married man, your wife and child will probably get your money eventually, but not before the state chisels away at it. The estate might go to probate court, be subject to probate taxes, require that a bond be taken out, an administrator found and paid for.

“It can be quite costly,” Patricia said. “And it comes out of the value of the estate. It becomes yet another expense you could have avoided.”

Things can be even worse if the truly tragic happens and both parents die without a will. The government will have to figure out where the children go. Even if there are family members eager to take them in, it’s likely the kids will spend some time in foster care before things are settled.

It may be the case that no one wants the kids. Or, if you’re leaving behind a sizable estate, it may be the case that everybody wants them. Your brother could end up fighting with your sister-in-law over who gets them — and their inheritance — a circumstance that has fueled countless Victorian novels.

Patricia understandably thinks a will done by a real live lawyer is superior to one done by a Web site or software program. Depending on the complexity, a will prepared in our area by a lawyer for a couple — along with documents setting up a trust for the children — will probably cost around $1,800, or about the cost of a 50-inch 3-D television.

“No TV set is going with you when you die,” Patricia said. “Your family probably won’t want your high-tech gadgets when you’re gone.”

But the point is, even if you use some software or a Web site, you really should do your will.

“Look at it not as planning your death,” Patricia said, “but your loved ones’ lives.”

Being of sound mind . . .

Whenever I talk to estate lawyers I always ask whether clients make strange demands of their heirs, like having to marry a certain person or sleep in a haunted house. (Can you tell I watched a lot of “Scooby-Doo” growing up?)

Patricia said she’s never encountered that. In fact, there are laws in place that prohibit forcing heirs to marry or divorce if they want to inherit.

“I have had people come up with elaborate plans for what happens with their remains,” she said. One client was a hard-core golfer who wanted his ashes sprinkled on courses where he’d scored a hole in one. (“I’m not sure how the golf courses felt,” Patricia said.)

Some clients want a particular poem read at their funeral or certain kinds of flowers on display.

Said Patricia: “As much as there are people who abhor [thinking about death], there are people who put enormous thought into what happens when they’re gone.”

Are you a lawyer who has helped a client with an interesting funeral request? Have you planned your funeral? Or been to an unusual one? I’d love to hear the details.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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