I was shocked recently to read that 70% of all Americans do not have a will. That’s really like saying 70% of all Americans are driving without insurance – and some of them are doing it with kids in the car. The bug causing this epidemic is the perception that wills are for the wealthy and that everything will just sort of work out. The reality is that this is frequently not the case, and things can go very wrong, indeed, without written instructions.
Appointing a guardian
Would you want Mom and Dad to be dealing with a rebellious teenager in their golden years? If your child is left with no living guardians and no one is assigned as such, your child’s fate is at the mercy of the court. A judge will use the law to make his or her decision, often at the expense of common sense – like giving a boisterous toddler to your retired parents.
Dividing up the property
Even if you don’t have any children, you’ll probably want a say over what happens to your property after you die. As an example, consider a person who owns a home and dies with no will in place, but several family members are seeking control of the estate. Probate Court has jurisdiction over these matters.
A probate court (also called a surrogate court) is a specialized court that deals with matters of probate and the administration of estates.
The outcome of the proceedings of a probate court are rarely ideal, pitting family member against family member. In the above example all the owners of the home are required to consent to sell the home and divide up the proceeds and sometimes that becomes like “herding cats.”
Something that a probate court will never do is remember your housekeeper or your kind neighbor. Remembering people who are not in your family is not only a way to say “Thank You,” but it is also a sign that you have lived a rich life. If you want to remember certain people in your will you should definitely include specific instructions.
While there are products and websites that offer templates for writing a will, a matter of this gravity deserves a professional Trust and Estate Attorney’s expertise.
I was lucky growing up in the sense that my parents were transparent about where everything was located in the event that something happened to them. I am the same way with my children and I encourage my clients to develop a similar transparency with their families. But most importantly, remember: Don’t drive without insurance – especially if there are kids in the car!
Judith Heft, Principal, Judith Heft & Associates is a personal financial concierge with offices in Greenwich and Stamford. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 203-978-1858.