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Will-Power: You Don’t Have To Be Rich

By Steven Sanderssaunders

I never meant to cause you any sorrow.
I never meant to cause you any pain.
I only wanted to one time see you litigating which of my claimed heirs gets the power to sell what’s left of my life’s work after legal fees to the highest bidder.

2016 remix to Prince’s Purple Rain

Most of the world is now aware that Prince, the famous musician, had no Last Will and Testament in place when he died in April at age 57.1 The result, as has been well reported, is an intestate2 mess. Half-siblings, half-nieces and half-nephews, half-grandnieces, and love children are coming out of the woodwork to claim a share of the valuable estate. And who will control it all?3 Who will end up benefiting the most?  The lawyers, quite naturally, in one form or another.

I don’t pretend to know what was going on in Prince’s head4, but it’s reasonable to assume he would not have wanted his affairs to end up in this kind of a hot mess. My guess is that, like many of us, he just didn’t expect it to happen this way — didn’t expect to die this way, or so soon, or at all — or he just didn’t want to think about it, much less plan for it or talk about it.

Of course, Prince is not alone in that regard; many famous people have died without a will over the years, including Pablo Picasso, Abraham Lincoln5, Howard Hughes6, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tupac Shakur, and Amy Winehouse. And according to a recent survey, chances are that you don’t have a will either. A recent Google Consumer survey by USLegalWills.com reported that 63 percent of Americans do not have a will. Another 9 percent said they had a will but it was out-of-date — meaning that nearly three in four Americans (72 percent) don’t have an up-to-date will in place.

Almost everyone knows they should have an up-to-date will in place. The problem is, most people just never get around to it. According to a 2015 survey, almost 90 percent of Americans said they simply hadn’t gotten around to making a will or didn’t think it was urgent. To some extent it’s understandable. No one really wants to think or talk about their own death. Others take the view – and some have told me this – that they won’t be here to worry about it anyway.7

And yet others avoid estate planning because of the expected cost. But if you have ever had the opportunity to talk to someone who has been left to pick up the pieces (and pay attorneys to help pick up the pieces) of an unplanned or poorly planned estate, you might take a different view. In many such cases, the burden and expense of administering the estate just was not fully known and/or appreciated. I’ve seen it too many times already in my young career: the fallout takes a tremendous toll on loved ones who are already grieving, trying to make it through a difficult time.

Perhaps a better way to think about estate planning is to look at your will as an extraordinary source of power and freedom. A will is a vehicle — an opportunity — to exercise a great deal of personal control over what is, for many of us, the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a life’s work. And it’s available to everyone.

Sure, there are some boundaries within which a will must and should be drafted. But for the most part you can do just about anything you want with your assets in a will and determine who will be in charge. Yet this incredible source of power and freedom too often goes wasted.

In my experience, the most valuable things about executing an up-to-date will for many individuals are the sense of relief that comes with the knowledge that you have made responsible decisions for your loved ones, important decisions that they will not have to grapple with under extremely stressful circumstances, and the sense of confidence that comes with having your affairs in order.

The process can be cathartic — a burden lifted from the shoulders of your loved ones. It just happens to have the bonus effect of making the administration of your estate much simpler and less expensive than the alternative, thereby preserving more of your hard-earned property for your intended beneficiaries.

I talk to many people without a will who say, “We just need simple wills,” or something similar. That may very well be the case; a simple will is much better than no will. But the process of drawing a will, especially when guided by a conscientious planning attorney, can in many cases open the door to a world of opportunities to fulfill more, if not all, of your wishes for your family and intended beneficiaries.

For example, most parents with minor children that I talk to do not want their children to come into a full inheritance, unrestricted, at 18.8 They don’t even want to think about it. A will allows you to responsibly and prudently provide for your children until they reach a more responsible age — of your choosing. For younger families, the most important and valuable opportunity afforded by a will is the ability to designate a preferred legal guardian and conservator for minor children.

You may have historic family items or articles of significant sentimental value, such as your great-grandmother’s raspberry beret or your father’s little red corvette, that you want to give to a certain person or specially provide for after your death. You may want to ensure that an aging parent or a dependent spouse who is unable or unwilling to manage assets themselves is provided for over his/her lifetime under the supervision of a different person or entity. You may want to leave assets to charity.

A will also allows you to waive many otherwise applicable legal obligations on the person who will manage your estate, such as the duty to file an inventory and/or periodic reports with the court, and to grant additional powers that allow for the efficient administration of your estate. None of these opportunities are available without a will or some form of planning substitute.

Of course, there are many other, more sophisticated opportunities available when preparing a will, including those designed to help minimize or eliminate the risk of unnecessary estate and/or income taxes. There are also alternatives to a will that may better serve your purposes.

The point is that “you don’t have to be rich” to realize the tremendous value of a will.

If you have not already done so, I encourage you to at least start the conversation and work to get something in place, preferably through a qualified planning attorney.

In the end, “life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.”


 

  1. At least no will that anyone has been able to find.
  2. “Intestate” — 1. Of or relating to a person who has died without a valid will. 2. Of or relating to the property owned by a person who died without a valid will. Black’s Law Dictionary, Third Pocket Edition, Bryan A. Garner (2006).
  3. Prince’s longtime bank, Bremer Trust, was appointed special administrator upon request of Prince’s sister.
  4. And I don’t want to know.
  5. Attorney
  6. A will was found but was proven a forgery.
  7. This is technically accurate.
  8. Or 21, or 25, or 30, or 35.
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