John and I are redoing our wills – it has been ten years since the last rendition, so it was time. Which of course reminds me to tell YOU–that you should do the same. Tax laws change, estate laws change, Congress malingers – and all affects what will happen when someone near and dear to you passes away (including yourself!). After someone dies is not the time to think about what was intended to happen. You really have to do that while everyone is alive to discuss it and plan. I know it is not pleasant – but if you hate surprises and love your family – get your wills out, read them, understand them (that is the really hard part), meet with your attorney, update them. You gotta do it.
So, what got me on this train of thought? This morning over coffee I perused one of my favorite little newsletters (AARP Bulletin – it is always informative!). An article told a horror story. An older married couple wrote up their wills—with an estate attorney– to address a way to make sure that their children from previous marriages were fairly treated someday out in the distant future. The husband’s will provided that his wife would receive assets in trust that, if anything was left, would go to the husband’s daughter, his only child. The wife’s will provided that her husband would receive assets in trust that, if anything was left, would go equally divided to her five children. Sounds good so far.
The attorney wrote up the wills which correctly anticipated the trusts – pretty ordinary stuff and it is how my own will is designed. Sort of (my attorney would be happy to tell you that I find ways to complicate everything). The husband died first and it was only then that the mistake was discovered–probably a typo. The husband’s trust (which was no doubt duplicated from the wife’s) simply said that all remaining assets would be divided among the children — as in, ALL of the children. The daughter was thus cut out of her inheritance and would eventually receive only 1/6 of whatever was left over.
Long story short—the daughter sued the attorney. She won. The attorney declared bankruptcy and thus wiggled out of paying his obligation to her. In turn, I’m sure she owed her own attorney and CPA a boatload of money for effectively representing her. Of course, I hope someone bothered to tell her in advance that there was a good chance that this attorney would figure out a way to beat the verdict.
Moral of the story? READ YOUR LEGAL DOCUMENTS. That includes life insurance policies, health insurance policies, annuity agreements, long term care policies, and of course, your WILLS.
I am happy to say that my attorney is doing it right for us — he is sending me drafts to read and then we will meet with him to go over the wills line by line. We will make sure we understand what is and isn’t in the wills and various durable powers of attorney. He will make sure he has understood what we intended our wills to accomplish when one of us dies. We will then correct misunderstandings and dangerous typos (like “all the children”).
My dear clients, doing your wills on line may be cheap but it probably won’t be best. Even having an attorney just do your wills for you is not enough on its own. Please see a competent attorney, and do the hard work — READ THROUGH THE DOCUMENTS with him/her, ASK QUESTIONS, get it right. Yes, you will pay a little extra – but will certainly help avoid catastrophes for everyone you love.
[And if you’d like us to help you with the “really boring stuff” – we can read documents for you, list out our questions, chat with you and then send you back to your insurance companies, investment counselors, attorneys to get your questions answered and documents revised if necessary.]