Imagine a distinguished, elderly lawyer in a dark paneled office. A group of potential heirs sit around his desk. There is tension in the air as the lawyer clears his throat to announce the deceased’s last wishes.
The “reading of the will” is a drama but in real life, no state requires it. Making a will, however, is a straightforward legal process based on clear communication and thoughtful planning.
August is Wills month, and it’s its last day, so if you’re one of the sixty-eight percent of Americans who don’t have a will, at least you’re not alone. However, you are creating opportunities for uncertainty and conflict that can affect your family’s future well-being.
When it comes to making a will, it is important to know the law. In Kentucky, for example, state law recognizes holographic wills. In other words, the entire document must be handwritten, signed and dated by the author of the will. Typing and signing a will is not enough.
Murray’s attorney, William C. (Chip) Adams, believes there are three hurdles to overcome when making a will.
“The hardest thing to do,” he said, “is to make an appointment.”
The second barrier? In fact, walk into a lawyer’s office once an appointment is made.
“Number three comes back and signs it,” according to Adams.
Each step has an emotional component, but Adams argues that ultimately, clients are relieved. “I’m so glad I finally did this,” is a common reaction.
Another Murray lawyer, Sarah Coursey Jones agrees. “It’s human nature to procrastinate over unpleasant thoughts,” she explained.
For example, parents of young children may not want to consider the idea that they both die and appoint a legal guardian. If the unthinkable happens, however, it is best for the children to be cared for by whomever the parents deem most appropriate. Grandparents, for example, may be hampered by age or medical conditions. Other relatives, or even dear friends, might be a better choice.
Adult children may avoid discussing wills with elderly parents because they don’t want to be suspected of having mercenary intent, but waiting too long to make a will can have consequences. People with a serious illness or dementia may not have the capacity to make decisions to formalize their bequests in a will.
Working with clients, Adams’ goal is to prepare a will that works until the day a person dies. “It’s a living document, a fluid document,” he said. “It can be changed at any time, when circumstances change.”
The most difficult will to prepare may be what Adams calls the “yours-mine-our” family, where there are children and assets from different relationships to consider.
“You cannot modify an existing will yourself by handwritten notes,” he warned, as that would render the document invalid.
Appointing an executor – the person who executes their last wishes and testament and ensures that the stipulations and wishes of the deceased are carried out correctly – is another important decision. Sarah Coursey Jones stressed the importance of letting the executor know where the will is and being clear about whether the person will be able to perform the necessary tasks.
“Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not,” she remarked. “Siblings are at each other’s throats sometimes.”
Murray State University’s executive director of development, Tina Bernot, explained that planned giving is another aspect of thinking about the provisions of a will. “I encourage people to consider gifts made in a will as bequests,” she said. “They are thoughtful, financially sound and a way to give back to an organization.”
These legacies go beyond money to include assets such as real estate, fine art, valuable historical books and documentation.
“But it’s vitally important,” Bernot said, “to talk to the organization in advance.”
“Sometimes donors prefer to keep their intentions private, but others fund donations over their lifetime,” she said. “They can start a scholarship fund now, with the rest of the donation coming later.”
“More and more, we’re seeing a trend of celebrating a gift now,” she said.
Whatever the reason for not having a will – too busy, lack of wealth or assets, aversion to thoughts of mortality, now is a good time to make a plan for the unthinkable.
Start by listing your assets and investments; review all your beneficiary designations for insurance policies and IRA accounts, etc. If you already have a will, take another look at it and update it as needed. Make sure the executor is still willing to take on this responsibility and consider including a charity in your bequests.
If the idea of a will seems too serious, a sketch of Rowan Atkinson on reading the will might be just what a lawyer would advise to cheer you up.