Traditionally a new year is infused with resolutions, the majority of which have to do with undoing the body mechanics from waay much holiday indulgence. But what about finance/estate shape-up? Specifically the four-letter affair known as a ‘Will’.
National statistics claim a whopping 65% of Americans don’t have a will because (a) psychologically they can’t admit to their own mortality and/or (b) if “partnered” they think all assests automatically revert to the “survivor”. Legally, however, a multitude of “exceptions” are court dealt into an estate when the primary player dies ‘intestate’ (without a will).
John Denver, the popular environmentalist/country singer, died sans will in 1997; he left behind a 20-million-dollar estate, two ex’s and three children. Songster Barry White did the same in 2003; his survivors tally one ex, 10 children, multiple grandchildren, a (separated from though still legal) wife and a significantother who birthed their child shortly before his passing. “No will” routinely flares a flurry of legal battles amongst all left behind. Sentences them to limbo-land time (years usually) until the court system sorts through fact and then rules their decision as to who-gets-what! Avoid this drama for those you love by following some basic steps:
1. Each state differs in how it divvys up assests to immediate family members should the major player pass intestate. Educate yourself on your state’s rules/regs; the internet makes this easy, on-line research. Check yearly as authoritive principles change. Use this data when drawing up your will to ensure no base is left unspoken to.
2. The goal of your will is to distribute assets to whom you wish. Do this with an attorney not on your own with a down-loaded, free form or hand-written per a book. Even a legally prepared will (at best) take approximately 9-12 months to administer so don’t slow the process by “saving a buck” in its conception. Most attorneys own sliding fees dependent on the size/complexity of assets and who they will be gifted to.
3. Arm yourself with questions for the attorney (again, do the homework prior to an appointment). Some states drive their inheritance tax on the relatioship of the beneficiary to the deceased. Have with you a detailed list of all current assets and a copy of your recent income tax records. Play the “what if” game . . who gets the stuff if my spouse and children are deceased? I have no siblings or children . . what should I do? Take it down til you hit personal comfort level.
4. The attorney will begin with a draft. Take it home and read carefully. Sleep on it for a week; share it with a spouse or close other for input. Only then give a nod for formal legal type. A copy should remain with the attorney; one for you, one for a child or close other (usually). A close other should be informed who your attorney is; provide this person with a card detailing phone number, etc.
5. A will only addresses stuff following death. If concern exists regarding health-care power of attorney; children care givers/guardians; etc., this is the time to address/query said. Each state keeps its own criteria for “life changes” that affect us all so, again, keep current on all in tandem with legal counsel.
6. Some states will slap inheritance tax on anything at all that is not covered in a will; i.e. in my state if I were to die with a dollar in my pocket that was not specifically “deeded to someone” it would get taxed. So ask away to the attorney because often times the will process is so rote with them they “forget” you’re a newbie and know zero about state/federal processes.
7. Common-sense housekeep: Divorce? Change the will. Moved to a new state? For sure change the will! For those rare couples who long-term mate and are beginning to age, a will can save survivorship benefits especially when talk to turns to nursing home care so UPDATE more frequently following retirement date.
Will your loved ones get what you want them to have when you’re gone? A will is not foolproof (what is!?) but it can act as insurance in keeping your assests and who they go to a private, purposeful action.