“A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.” ~Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Many of us put off the preparation of a Will because we don’t want to think about our deaths. And it’s true that preparing a Will forces us to contemplate dying and a world that continues on without us.
But, one way or another, the things that we own must pass on to others after we depart this world. We can plan for that transition, and try to see that it happens in a positive and beneficial manner. Or we can fail to plan and let chaos take its toll.
We will be gone – what does it matter?
It probably doesn’t matter if we don’t care a hoot about what happens to the people in our life after we are gone.
The problem is that if we do care, then we need to recognize that our death has the potential to do serious harm to the people who survive us. Our Will is a document we prepare for our survivors, not for ourselves. Having an up-to-date Will is one of the most important things we can do to protect, care for, and provide for the people we care about the most.
If we have children our Will provides us with the opportunity to name a guardian to care for them (if they are young) and a trustee to protect their inheritances (even if they are adults). If we die without naming a guardian in our Will, a court may appoint one without the benefit of our knowledge and judgment. Without a trust, inheritances may soon be lost to our heirs’ improvidence or divorce.
A Will allows us to select our executor. The executor is the person or institution who will be in charge of finalizing our affairs and distributing our estate. It can be a burdensome job. Our executor collects our assets, arranges for payment of debts and taxes, and then distributes what is left to our designated beneficiaries in accordance with our instructions. If we die without a Will, the orphan’s court will have to appoint someone to perform these functions. This might be the last person we would have chosen.
Without a Will, the identity of our beneficiaries and the amounts they inherit will all be determined by state laws.
In our Will we can take steps to limit the taxes that our heirs will have to pay. And we can leave instructions to help ensure that the right people, get the right inheritances, at the right times. By providing for distribution of our assets in a clear and thoughtful manner, we can avoid the potential for delays and family disputes that can be so hurtful to the people we care about.
A Will is the keystone of most estate plans, but it is not the only planning we need. Most of us own assets that will pass to others without regard to the provisions of our Will.
Life insurance policies, IRAs and other retirement plan accounts, annuities, and the like, will be distributed based upon their beneficiary designations, not our Will. These designations may have been created decades ago, and need to reviewed and updated as appropriate. Assets that we own jointly with another may pass “by right of survivorship” to the joint owner.
We need to consider the effects of all of these “non-probate” arrangements to make sure that our plan best meets our family’s unique circumstances. An estate planning and elder law lawyer can help make certain that we do not miss any important elements in preparing our estate plan. People who live in Pennsylvania can call on my law firm Marshall, Parker and Weber for help with this.
Even if we already have a Will, if our family situation has changed, or our planning has not been reviewed and updated in the last five years, we can do our loved ones a great kindness by taking care of this most important task.
Although we don’t want to think about dying, this is just too important to put off.
“We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.” ~Marcel Proust