People don’t like to think about making a will, and I get it. Nobody wants to think about death. But consider for a moment some of the intangible aspects of life, like bonds between brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. By not having a will in place, these things can die along with you.

When someone dies without a will, it is said that their estate is intestate. Adjudicating an intestate estate requires probate. Probate proceedings are different in every state, but they all involve someone from the government swooping down into your private life and disbursing your estate according to a predetermined formula set forth by the state’s legislature. Probate is not a fun process, as I found out from one of my friends recently.

Her husband passed away intestate over a year ago. Going through the machinery of the probate process has been time-consuming, frustrating, and exhausting—and she still hasn’t seen a dime of the money that is rightfully hers. What could have been just one hoop to jump through has turned into hundreds, and I was able to see in her eyes that it had become an extremely emotional issue for her.

Another friend confessed that neither she nor her parents have wills. “I have nothing besides my checking account…besides, how would I go about broaching the subject with my parents?” This is a common question, and the answer is simpler than one might expect.

  • Meet with them in a quiet, private room.
  • Explain to them that you don’t want them to die, but it would be a good idea to know where their will is located.
  • If they do not have a will, help them find a trusts and estates attorney.

Note: It is vital that the person who is getting the will meet with the attorney one-on-one. In the case of older Americans who depend on other people, it is not uncommon for hangers-on to insinuate themselves into the meeting. Home health aides or new “friends” should NEVER be present.  

In addition to a standard will that distributes your assets to your heirs, documents like a healthcare proxy and power of attorney give your heirs the ability to do things like making healthcare decisions and dealing with a boss or landlord.

It is also a good idea to look into pre-paid funeral arrangements so that your heirs are not stuck with the bill. I was lucky in that my parents had made arrangements for their funerals before they died. My siblings and I still had to pay a little bit of money, but it was a fraction of what funerals cost today. In fact, determining who will cover the cost of the funeral tore apart the family of another friend.

His father worked for the State of New York and retired with a hefty pension. He seemingly had done everything right—but he never made a will. When he died, his family imploded. He had left no instructions or money for his funeral and burial. The debt from the funeral home was passed around like a hot potato, and the family has never been whole since. What makes this story even worse is the fact that my friend’s father lied to him, and told him there was a death benefit to his pension when there wasn’t.

As parents, we can do better than that. Surely whatever temporary discomfort you might feel confronting your mortality is worth keeping the family together in the long run. My parents always spoke openly about their will, making sure that my siblings and I always knew where it was located. Now that I am a mother, I have done the same, and I anticipate my kids will follow suit.

Family is important, whether it’s family by birth or a chosen family of friends. If you find yourself needing to get in touch with a trusts and estates attorney but don’t know how to go about finding a quality one, contact me for a referral and I can put you in touch with some of the best.