Do you have a will? If so, when did you create it? Years ago? If so, you might want to take it out of the box, filing cabinet, or cupboard it’s in and see what kind of commitments you made to your stuff when you died.
You don’t have a will? Do you think you have plenty of time and will eventually get there? Not surprising. Almost two-thirds of Americans do not have a will. Most did not think about the arrival of covid-19, which has an unpredictable effect on lifespan.
So what? you say. If I’m dead, I don’t care what happens to my 1966 GTO and my grandmother’s Czech porcelain. This is not a wise attitude. When you die without a will, according to internet sources, you leave the decisions about what happens to your possessions and property to a local court and the laws of your state. You will have no say in who receives your assets. And not having a will can make it harder for loved ones, like your favorite niece, a car enthusiast to whom you promised that GTO, but never put that promise in writing.
The other day, while letting my mind wander on a wonderful sunny bike ride, I started to think about my will. Having written it almost 20 years ago, I confess that I don’t remember exactly what it contains. Have I listed personal effects to go to specific people? Have I listed a group of charities to receive a specific amount of money or good? Have I noted the names of other people to acquire this and that which at this time no longer live?
So when I got home, I pulled the will out of a semi-organized filing cabinet. It turns out to be neatly typed and official-looking, apparently produced in an orderly and legal fashion, with the signatures of witnesses and an executor. (It helps to have a friend who is a lawyer and willing to take a look at your work; thanks, Paul Bowen, Esq.)
I had designated my father and three charities to receive part of my estate, plus a percentage for the care and support of my dogs. They may not be the same dogs that share my life now, but when they cross the rainbow bridge they will be replaced by other dogs, so the designation still stands. My father died ten years ago, so his percentage will be divided among other designated people. And one of the witnesses isn’t as close a friend as he used to be, but we’re still on good terms. The validity of the document therefore appears to be intact.
Satisfied that no action is needed, I refiled the paperwork and easily found something else to worry about. And if you’re writing a will, you too can move on.
Here are the reasons why you should do it now rather than later, according to freewill.com:
1. Almost all estates must go to Probate Court to begin the court process overseeing the division of assets. But when you don’t have a will, the legal process can get complicated. Without a will, the court must appoint an administrator to deal with your estate. It can be time-consuming, expensive and contentious.
2. When you write a will, you become a ‘testator’ and are able to appoint an ‘executor’, who will be responsible for everything from closing bank accounts to liquidating assets (including that handsome ’66 GTO). Find someone who is capable and ask them if they will accept the job. If you don’t choose an executor in your will, the court will choose one for you, and it may not be the person you want.
3. As a testator, you can name beneficiaries for specific assets. You can also name beneficiaries for any property you don’t list. When your executor takes over, it will distribute these assets.
4. You can also use a will to ensure that certain people (we all know who they are) don’t receive anything.
5. If you are a parent, you can use your will to designate a guardian who will be responsible for your minor children. The surviving parent will usually get legal custody if one parent dies. But if both parents die, that’s one of the most important reasons to have a will.
6. As mentioned earlier, you can make sure someone cares for your pets after you die. Although pets are considered property — meaning you can’t leave them Czech china or your Louis Vuitton handbag — you can name a beneficiary to act as your pet’s guardian. It’s wise to leave funds with them to provide for your pet’s care.
6. Your digital assets may include online accounts and digital files or goods (photos, videos, social media, domain names). You can appoint a digital executor to manage them. Pick someone who knows what they’re doing.
7. Support charities or causes close to your heart that will preserve your legacy, just as it is.
8. Provide funeral instructions; they will not be legally binding, but may give your executors and loved ones some guidance as to your wishes.
9. You can create a will using online sites or get help from a lawyer.
Among the many lessons covid-19 clarifies is that each of us is going to die and that death can come when we least expect it. Writing a will can ease your loss for those who carry on.
Karen Martin is the editor of Perspective.