Sunday, October 19, 2008

Will Power

Easily the most unpleasant chore for me as a parent has been writing my will. It should have been easy enough as a single 20something - even 30something! Having no worldly possessions or "legacies" to speak of should have made them easy to address via a "last will and testament." They were not. Even the most fatalistic for one reason or another skip this portion of the exercise.

Attorney and author, Liza W. Hanks summarizes two surveys done on why most people do not have a will in her blog, Everyday Estate Planning. Based on her reading of the surveys, the top three reasons people do not draw up wills are:

  • People don't like to think about dying.
  • People don't know how to get started or who to talk to about an estate plan.
  • People think that they don't have enough assets to need one.

While the legal "nuances" regarding wills vary from state to state, the unwavering fact that without a will the state determines the dissemination of your assets should be enough of a wake up call to run right out and have one drawn. Having the state determine what to do with your worldly belongings means there is a greater potential that things won't end up where you feel they belong. In fact, having the state determine what to do when you're dead could also mean costly legal fees for your family as they wade through lawyers and courts to access what you want to leave them.

It is even scarier to think that if both you and your partner die, the state will determine care for your children and swallow up everything you intended to leave to them, regurgitating your intentions in often haphazard and thoughtless ways. The state does not know you or your family. You are simply a name and a number (sometimes not even the former). It is ludicrous to think that it will take care of them when you die.

What's even scarier than that is family fighting over your assets. The Huffington Post published an interesting article by Jordan Atin on "sibling divorce." Money, as far as I can remember, was the only thing my father and mother argued about. While they divorced over non-material differences, the conversation still returns to money whenever the name of one is mentioned in the presence of the other. They'll both say that the other "took everything."

I swore that I would never argue over money with my wife but recently we had a blow out regarding that very same subject. While a more complex argument than the one my mother and father would have, money was still a key component in the argument. I hate the idea that one day my children will risk unraveling the family my wife and I have created because of money. "It's not fair," Jordan writes, "echo(es) over and over in every estate litigator's office."

And it only makes sense since it echoes through our apartment right now. "It's not fair, he always gets to play with it." "It's not fair, he always gets to go first." It's not fair, he always [INSERT ACTION HERE]."

Some have told me and I have read that drawing up a will is the simplest legal procedure I will undertake (though I don't remember who or where). It is not. Once I was scared enough, I embarked on drawing up my will. However, before I could do that my wife and I had to agree on a lawyer. We chose not to do a will online because most online wills do not account for state estate laws. So at first, we wanted to use a family member or a friend but then discovered that if the relationship were considered too intimate, it would be easy to contest the will. We settled on someone who had a proven legal track record with a friend.

My wife and I are not rich people. The Rockefellers and the Trumps do not have our number on speed dial. It is because of this that I need to know when I go that my wife and children have immediate access to money and that it is working as hard as it can for them. It was easy enough for us to agree that a trust be created for our children. It was even easy for us to determine a trustee, someone who would manage the money in the trust.

It has been hard deciding on guardianship. It is easier to cope with one of us dying (either my wife or me) than both of us passing because it is assumed that the survivor would raise our children in the same manner and with the same values we do now. Our extended family does not always share our social sensibilities and views. We have specific social values we wish impart to our children. Unfortunately, these social values are not all held by our families. We decided on a family friend. We are still trying to figure out how we break it to our families.

Our families love our children but we are anticipating in their traditionally Asian way that they will have a hard time accepting our turning to someone outside of them as guardians of our children. I imagine many families Asian and non-Asian would have the same issues regarding guardianship. My wife and I thought of our own families first but realized that our friend was most aligned with our beliefs and hopes for our children.

There is a lot of information out there (some of it conflicting). The Baby Center provides a good general introduction to wills and the considerations parents should address.


[Originally posted at Blog for Cranial Gunk.]


Angie in Texas said...

it's time for me to write a will . . . when i was married, we, too, had a really difficult time deciding on who would raise the children given worse case scenario . . . it's hard to say to family "oh BTW we've decided you're not going to get the kids".

good luck!

thisislarry said...

Or you can just not tell your family. If it comes to pass, you'll be dead, and cant be bothered to worry. If it doesn't, why raise unnecessary angst?