What do Aretha Franklin, Prince, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Bono, and Kurt Cobain have in common? All these mega rich celebrities died without a will.
It reminds me about a sad personal family story:
My Grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for over 40 years. They both died without ever speaking to each other again. Why? A dispute about a hutch in their mother’s estate. Each believed that their Mother would have wanted her to have the family heirloom. Given that the family was destitute the value of the hutch was probably close to zero. But, it must have had great sentimental value to the girls. My grandmother lived with us so I heard the bitter story fairly often.
This whole sorry comic opera saga could have been avoided if Great Grandmother had left the very simplest will. No matter how rich or poor you are, everybody should have a will. That means you, and if you are like most Americans, you don’t have one.
In each of these celebrities’ cases, you just have to wonder where their advisors were. Their empires were so large and complex that it’s going to cost many, many millions to straighten them out. The estates are likely to stay open for longer than they lived! Meanwhile, the fees to run it will approach the GDP of a small African country. And the results probably won’t look anything like what they might have wanted.
OK, you and I are not celebrities. But, we all need wills. Remember, if you have no will, the state has one for you. It’s called intestacy. It’s probably not what you want, and it will be expensive, aggravating, and time consuming to settle your affairs. The state doesn’t know your family, which charities you might like to benefit, or that you always wanted your first daughter to get your jewels. But, the state has a formula and that’s how it’s going to be settled.
Many people feel that because they have most of their property jointly titled, or passes by beneficiary selection in IRAs, pensions, insurance contracts and/or is in trusts that they don’t need a will. It’s just not true.
What should we consider?
Wills are very flexible and can include a number of provisions that will assist you to carry out your wishes. But, they are not one size fits all, and won’t provide complete solutions for large or complex estates. Nevertheless, everybody should have one as an essential part of their planning. Here are just a few things to consider as you work with your advisor and/or attorney.
Personal Representative: This is the person that will settle your estate. That requires gathering your assets, paying your debts and taxes, distributing to your named beneficiaries and filing paperwork with the courts to wind up your affairs. Of course, it should be someone you trust, but they also should be willing and able to serve. Depending on how complex your situation is, being a personal representative can be a time consuming and challenging task. Consider if you should select a professional so that your family members are not burdened, or if you have no immediate family members in the area that are up to the task during a time of stress. If you have no family members or if you don’t care to appoint them a friend may be selected. But, whoever you appoint should be consulted in advance and accept the appointment.
Guardians: If you have underage children you will want to designate who will care for them. This may be the toughest problem couples face. Better you decide now because the court can’t know that your brother abuses drugs, chases women shamelessly, can’t hold a job, and is financially irresponsible. As you sort this out, it’s good to know that you can divide the responsibility into a guardian of their persons who will love, nurture, educate and teach them values, and a guardian of their property who will invest the funds and make them available to the guardian of their persons. You might also consider what funds might reasonably necessary to offset additional housing costs, medical, education and other expenses that would be incurred.
Beneficiaries: Decide which persons and organizations should benefit from your estate and in what proportion. You do not have to treat all family members equally. You can for instance provide a college fund for each child that hasn’t finished at least an MBA before the remainder is divided. You can specify a dollar amount or use a formula such as a percentage of the net estate to each.
Specific Bequests: In the event you have personal items (like the family hutch mentioned above), or real estate you can make specific bequests. For personal items you might consider referring to a letter detailing specific bequests of personal property that you leave on file with your attorney or in a safe place like a safety deposit box. Examples of items you might consider are cars, boats, art work, jewelry, stamps, collectables, fishing gear, furniture, silverware, glassware, and china. Using an updated letter like this prevents you from updating the will each time you acquire a new piece of art or other piece of property.
Charitable Contributions: Part or all of your estate could go to a charity or charities you direct to carry out your philanthropic intent.
Pour over provisions: After all your specific bequests you can direct the balance of your estate to a trust that will provide for your family for several generations while minimizing any potential estate tax implications.
Spousal Rights: Your state of residence will have specific rights for surviving spouses. If violated by the will and absent any prior written agreement among the spouses then the surviving spouse can elect against the will provisions, but only for property passing under the will.
Even my great grandmother who was destitute at the time of her death should have had a will. It would have prevented years of bitterness.
But, don’t try this at home. A professional can help you craft a solution that fits your situation and family needs. Everybody should have a will, and because things change they should reexamine it from time to time. Now would be a very good time to get started.