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No one likes to think about their own mortality.
That is why it is so difficult to start the important process of drafting a will and forming an estate plan.
One of the most altruistic acts one can do is to help those who are around long after you are gone.
Without a will or estate plan in effect you essentially leave some of the most important decisions to others who may not choose the path you would have wanted.
Frequent contributor, Gayle Morris, submitted the following guest post where she shares her insights on why we all need to have these important legal documents in place before it is too late.
My friend Frank is 80 years old and his wife was 78.
He seems biologically younger than 80.
He gets up at 4 a.m. every morning and is at the gym by 5:00.
By the time he gets home and has had breakfast most of us are just getting out of bed.
Twenty months ago, his wife was leaving the hospital after a doctor’s appointment and dropped as she was opening the door to her car.
Despite being right outside the emergency room they could not revive her.
It was then that Frank came face to face with the repercussions of a wife dying without a will in the state of Ohio.
It’s been nearly two years and his final probate court date is coming up.
He’s had to borrow money, sell belongings and live on next to nothing for the last 6 months because their joint accounts were frozen and her life insurance has not paid out.
Several years before, Frank had asked her why she didn’t have a will, and she told him if she made one then it meant she would die soon.
The conversations about death and dying in our society are difficult ones.
Decades ago, parents lived with their children and died with their children.
Grandchildren had a front-row seat to the circle of life as siblings were born and grandparents died all in the same home.
But today, the elderly live out their last days in residential care facilities, often dying there too.
It’s been over 10 years since I’ve been divorced.
Before the divorce, my ex-husband and I developed a trust and funded that trust with our assets.
During the divorce, the assets were redistributed and the trust was no longer funded, except for one item – my will.
Amazing how I let that little piece of paper stand for the last 12 years.
Should I die tomorrow, all my assets would transfer to my ex-husband, which is not something I want.
And so, while I don’t believe that making a will can shorten my longevity, it is time to face my own mortality and make a new one.
The estate is not large and I no longer have minor children, but a will helps avoid the lengthy probate process that Frank has had to go through.
I know it will minimize estate taxes and through a will, I can make special gifts to my children of things I know each would appreciate having.
A Will Does More Than Distribute Property
As I learned after my father-in-law died, a will does more than distributing assets.
Bill had named his wife and youngest son as co-executor to the estate.
It is an honor to be trusted to wrap up someone’s estate after they’ve died, and yet it’s also a responsibility to be charged with protecting the property until everything has been settled.
The executor may need to become a mediator when the terms of the will aren’t shared before the person dies and family members are caught unawares.
Executors also have the responsibility of managing a person’s assets before they’re distributed and handling the estate passing through probate court.
Assets that are jointly owned easily pass to the survivor, but other assets can be more challenging when the recipients are angry.
After our mother died, my youngest sister, who lived in the same town, was responsible for settling her debts, notifying government agencies, and closing her bank accounts.
In the process, she found mementos and financial paperwork in our mother’s safe deposit box at the bank.
Although we were adults when she died, it turned out there were a few things about our mother we didn’t know.
While going through her closets and clothes, my sister also found beautiful nightgowns that our mom had bought months before, but was “saving.”
As the executor, my sister saw more of what my mother held back from us while she was alive.
And as the executor, she took her responsibilities seriously and didn’t share what she found.
As I contemplated who to choose as my executor, I realized that my life was more of an open book with my children than my mother was with us.
So, maybe the choice was not about who would or could keep my secrets, but more about who could perform the necessary tasks while remaining impartial, discrete, and diligent.
I remember the burden my sister felt when she had to go through the paperwork and I wonder to which of my children I should leave that task?
As It’s Time to Put Pen to Paper …
When my father died, he was in the hospital for nine days.
My mother lingered for six weeks.
During that time, the nursing staff worked hard to keep her comfortable.
Unfortunately, the nearly inevitable happened when she slipped into a coma and she developed a pressure ulcer.
As I sit in front of the computer, writing out what I’d like in my will, I think back on the weeks that my sister sat at my mother’s bedside, watching her slip away and doing all she could to give our mother her dignity.
After marriage, my ex-husband’s job took us around the country for three and four years at a time.
It wasn’t a lifestyle I would have chosen, but it was necessary for the type of work he did.
Did the years of living in the same town as our parents’ support mom’s decision to give my sister the lion’s share of her estate?
And since I wasn’t privy to the information before her death, I didn’t have the chance to ask her why … What had I done in the years when I visited every six weeks and called daily as my husband’s work took us around the country?
Almost immediately after learning my mother’s decision, I knew I had to let that go.
My mother was gone, with that final act, so was the ability to get an answer.
It’s not a question that’s haunted me, but it has shaped the way I talk with my own family.
A will is a precious document, which communicates volumes to your loved ones for the very last time, whether that’s your intention or not.
My last words will have an impact on my children for the rest of their lives, in much the same way my mother’s last words and wishes had an impact on mine.
I want those words to reflect the depth of my love for each of them and my pride in who they’ve become as adults.
I think we learn from the people who come, and have gone, before us.
And I believe those lessons should be taken to heart.
I don’t want any of my four children to feel as though I value another of them more than the rest.
I also don’t want them to question whether or not they were loved if I treat them all equally.
Children are unique individuals who deserve to know they are valued and cared for because of who they are and not just because they are my children.
As adults, we never just create a will out of thin air.
When you’ve packed away a few years in your life, it is likely other family members have passed before you.
This is the time to learn what you want to include and what you want to be sure you never do to the next generation.
Our words have power in people’s lives that can last decades, especially in the lives of the loved ones we leave behind.
My legacy will not be left in my will.
This piece of paper will legally distribute my financial assets.
But my biggest legacy will be the four children I leave who will know that they were loved individually for their own unique gifts they offer the world and who will have a strong foundation on which to build their own family.
Gayle Morris is a freelance writer that’s been writing on health and wellness for over ten years. She spent over 20 years as a certified nurse and nurse practitioner before hanging up her stethoscope and picking up the pen.
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