Jan 30, 2020

Plan for the Unthinkable Before It's Too Late (Get Your Will Done!)

Kobe Bryant's death was shocking because he was only 41 years old. And while most of us are probably never going to ride in a private helicopter, sudden death can happen at any time. About ten years ago, when my boys were very little, the husband of a friend died in a motorcycle accident on his way to work, leaving behind my friend and her two boys, who are only a couple of years older than my kids.

I'm no more likely to ride a motorcycle than a private jet or helicopter, but accidents and health-related emergencies happen all the time, to perfectly healthy (or seemingly healthy) people. That's why I want to emphasize the importance of preparing for the unthinkable.

If you don't have a will, your estate will be handled in accordance with your state's probate laws, which provide for distribution of your assets to your nearest relatives, in an order laid out in the law. If you want everything to go to your spouse and/or child(ren), maybe you don't need a will. But suppose you want to give a necklace to the cousin who gave it to you, so she can pass it on to her daughter, or you want to leave some money to your favorite charity. That won't happen unless you specify your wishes in a will.

Even more important, if you have minor children and you and your spouse die together, without a will, it will be up to the state court to appoint their new legal guardian and determine who will manage your assets on their behalf. You and your spouse might agree that your brother and his wife should take care of your children and the money, but your in-laws might make a compelling case to the court and get custody of their grandchildren and the assets.

Plan for the Unthinkable Before it's Too Late (and Get Your Will Done!)

Given Kobe's status and wealth, it's safe to assume he had a will and that his affairs are in order. His family undoubtedly has an attorney to make sure the will is submitted to the courts, and surely someone has a list of his accounts and passwords. Most of the assets are probably in trusts anyway.

Most of us don't have the luxury of hiring someone to organize our affairs for us, but the good news is, we don't have to.

Writing a will is relatively easy, especially these days with the software that's available. Quicken's Willmaker & Trust seems to be universally highly regarded and is just $89.99 at Amazon (affiliate link). However, you should consider hiring a lawyer if your family is particularly contentious (would they fight over your estate?) or your finances aren't run-of-the-mill (do you own a business? are your investments complex?). The best way to find a lawyer is a referral from someone you know, but your state bar can also direct you to referral services (go here for California).

If you own real property (like a house), you might want to consult an attorney to see if a revocable living trust is right for you. Trusts allow you to avoid probate and reduce the likelihood of a fight over your assets. A trust and a will are not the same thing, and if a trust is right for your situation, you will probably need a will also. Our estates attorney recommended that my husband and I have both, and also drew up documents to give us power of attorney over each other's medical care in case one of us ever becomes incapacitated.

But writing a will is just one part of the preparation process. You should also ensure that you leave behind a list of your accounts and passwords. When my aunt passed away, the executor of her estate had trouble tracking down all of her bank accounts, and we never were able to get into her computer to make sure we weren't missing anything.

Another thing you can do is throw or give away anything you don't need - in other words, get rid of the clutter.

Just imagine that you die tomorrow, or a year from now, and your grief-stricken family has to try to get on with their lives. Wouldn't you do anything you could to make it easier for them? That's what this process is about, and it's just another way for you to show your love.

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