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What is a will? Part One.
- A document to keep the kids from each other’s throats and never speaking to each other as long as they live? YES!
- A signed piece of paper that can help you and your loved ones reduce or avoid estate taxes? YES!
- A loving instrument that gives your estate to your loved ones, schools and charities that have meant the most to you during your life. Triple YES!
In this blog I want to focus on the first question listed above. Your Estate Planning documents, including a will can strengthen your family after you’re gone or break it apart for ever. It’s not only how thoughtfully you divvy everything up, but the tone of voice in which it is written.
A thoughtfully written document takes into account that everyone wants the items that bring the fondest memories, and that one child, for various reasons, may feel they deserve more than the others. Bear in mind that childhood rivalries and longstanding family dynamics may only increase after you are gone. And let’s face it, Mom always did like you best!
I have had clients who insisted on getting one last poke at their good-for nothing-kids. “To Judy who has ignored me for 20 years, I give nothing. To Randall who married that tart even though I told him not to, I give nothing.” Please resist this kind of commentary in your will.
You may have your reasons for giving Billy the house and Sally the jewels, or grandchild A the money for college and grandchild B the money for tech school, but, unless there is a compelling reason, making the distribution as even as possible helps preserve family relationships. A trust fund for a developmentally disabled child, or keeping money away from a heroin addict or person with a gambling problem, is understood. Otherwise, unless everything is distributed evenly, your decisions may bring a measure of animosity and hurt between family members.
If there are special considerations, or if you want to give everything to charity like Warren Buffet, show everyone your will before you die. It seems Mr. Buffet put his last wishes in a press release and sent it to the media.
Also, if you name one child as executor (the “responsible” one) there’s a great possibility that the other members of the family will be resentful, again based on past family dynamics. As I help families sort things out after the death of a loved one, I’ve seen several sue each other until all the assets of the estate are spent on attorney fees and court costs. Other predictable problems arise with step parents and step children.
So, let’s consider options that may keep your family from becoming estranged after your death. In addition to an even distribution, one way to preserve peace among the survivors is to appoint someone outside of the family as executor. This may be a family friend, family attorney, or a more remote relative, someone unswayable. If the estate is large, a bank trust department or a paid professional may be the best choice. For a professional, it will only be a job to get the assets dispersed as quickly as possible. You can arrange for this professional to be paid a set price from the assets after death. The best thing about a paid executor is that your family can get as mad at them as they need to without turning on each other.
Another extremely important consideration is to keep your will updated. Kids grow up and grandkids appear before you know it. A child may pre-decease you. New property may be acquired with a new spouse. All of these situations will not be covered directly in an old will. Various statutes will then take over and fill in the gaps, not necessarily as you would like. For example if you don’t state what happens when a beneficiary pre-deceases you, a statute gives it to their children automatically. Update your estate planning documents to avoid unintended results.
It’s unbelievable how spectacularly your wishes can get all screwed up. Johnny wants to buy half of the family farm, but only wants the portion that would basically make the rest of the property unmarketable. AND…..he can’t understand why Mary doesn’t love him enough to grant that request. Mary wants all the furniture that has been in said farm and doesn‘t feel she needs to pay the estate anything for it because, after all, she dusted it for twenty years while she was growing up. In my practice I have encountered the above problems and much, much more.
Money can be fairly easy to divide, but items of sentiment are not. Furniture, jewelry, silver (usually everything besides clothing) can be difficult. This is why many professionals advise that all items are priced and the amount of the item is deducted from the beneficiary’s cash portion of the estate. Some people make a list of the sentimental items and designate the receiving family member. This list is allowed to be changed without the formalities of making a will.
Before you throw your hands up in disgust, read this. Thoughtful, loving wills and trusts can avoid most disagreements. Since every family is unique, I have many other suggestions and ideas on this subject that I would love to share with you. I encourage you to make your will now by contacting me at Steven Schneider, Attorney at Law at (509) 838-4458 or SS@StevenSchneiderLaw.com. For more information, visit www.StevenSchneiderLaw.com.