While we engaged our solicitor to do the work of making sure the proper legalese was in place, we still had to haul out the previous set of directives, which were quite dated, and decide what changes had to be made that would reflect the current state of affairs, relationships, and stuff in our lives. Which translated to a week of a very real emotional accounting and inventory of how familial relationships have unfolded and changed over the years, of actually thinking in terms of being dead and gone, of toying with those concepts of no longer being engaged in, or responsible for anything here, and trying to insure that our loved ones whom we leave behind are not hurt or harmed by this last set of decisions we have made. Also essential was that our Executor will be helped, not hindered, by these documents in doing a quick cleanup of what business and stuff we leave behind unfinished, getting them on with their own joy of living.
But wait… a hot gut desire that my father’s desk, the fossils, the photos, my mother’s oil painting, the books, surely we must individually designate who receives them, and explain why they are so valuable, and must never be allowed to get outside the family. What about all the relentless organizations that constantly are soliciting us to remember them in our estate planning? What about my journals? What about if the Executor changes her mind and the alternate is out of country incommunicado or is put in the Witness Protection Program? Laughing to realize I am not over stuff, control, or being held in postmortem esteem, as much as I thought myself or claimed…..
Approximately 55 percent of American adults do not have a will or other estate plan in place, according to LexisNexis. This number has stayed relatively steady during the 2000s, even as the number of other estate planning documents Americans have — like medical directives — have increased. Demographics show that the numbers are higher within specific groups: 68 percent of African Americans and 74 percent of Hispanic adults do not have wills.
Having lived many years I’ve witnessed some fairly awful arguments unfold when someone dies without a will. Watched people enter into a fugue state as they attempt to unravel parents’, friends’, spouses, step children, ex wives and husbands, siblings….settle others’ affairs without so much as a pencil to brown paper bag set of instructions.
I once helped my friend navigate several really long months following her mother’s death. Her mother had refused to discuss the subject of her passing and estate. Simply saying ‘let’s not be morbid; of course everything goes to you dear.‘ It took the expense of several court appearances to get recognized and accepted as the next of kin. Then to her mother’s locked up tight home, only to find that her mother had created a ‘treasure hunt’ of sorts: keys to a safe deposit box hidden in a third floor back bedroom closet among 1920’s vintage clothing, a bank book behind the bottle of bleach in the shed where the laundry was done, another in the bottom of the box that held her garden tools. A life insurance policy tucked between sheets in a linen closet. A gold brooch and matching necklace in the refrigerator bin with rotted potatoes and onions. Over a year now since her mother passed, and no Will ever located. It’s absence, and the mess left behind, remains my friends own personal pool of quicksand. Sucking her time, money, energy, and spirits downward.
I’ve witnessed some fairly awful, close to violent arguments when people have left behind an exclusionary, mean-spirited, vague, or tediously detailed will. Know people who have promised, while living, all manner of money, stuff, property, and gifts to their family members, neighbors, churches, or auto mechanics, to court favor, control, and loyalty. Then not so much as a mention of them in their Wills or Trusts, often never even having one.
Witnessed bad behavior emerge out of, engulf and take command of some of the most generous, kind, and fair minded people I have ever known. I know siblings who do not speak to one another, parents who with their last testaments set into motion years of postmortem mischief, mayhem and estrangement for the remaining family members and friends. I know a woman who cared more for a thimble and a green portable heater than for her niece who adored her. Another who for years has kept a ragged manilla file marked ‘State of Mind’. Years of filling it with anecdotes and ‘proofs’ against specific targets. Documents and letters slyly nicked from homes & archives, newspaper clippings, accusations, gossip, and suspicions. Used to influence elders, challenge wills, and lay claim and power over others’ lives.
Young parents who just assume their children will be loved, provided for, educated, and raised by someone they never bothered to designate if they themselves die. I know orphans who are now elders, whose hearts and minds never mended from their unsettled childhoods following parental deaths.
I have also witnessed what happens when people who made it clear in Wills, Trusts, and Medical Directives what their desires and arrangements were in the distribution of their assets: Young people going to college, an acquaintance who polishes and cherishes a 1955 Chevy he inherited many years ago from a beloved uncle, and a friend who was quickly able to step in and calmly instruct a medical team to not resuscitate his sister, having in his hands a current and binding health directive from her. A friend of mine inherited her childhood home from her parents which she promptly moved into, and will be passing it on to her children when she passes. Record collections, baseball cards, family bibles, and timeshares. All manner of mementos and goodwill getting passed on. And many years ago, when my best friend and her husband were killed by a drunk driver leaving two small children suddenly adrift, a carefully worded and precise handwritten will that had been witnessed and notarized was found among their possessions, a document that requested who would have guardianship of the children should they not be able or present.
We wake up mid week needing a break from this head exploding seriousness, and go out for breakfast. I eaves-drop on the conversations of a group of old guys who are complaining about the thirty- five cent hike in the cost of the Breakfast Special, and the death taxes imposed on their kids when they die by President Obama and the IRS. I’m just plain skeptical that this is actually an issue for their kids. If it is, I am sitting next to five men whose individual wealth is each over the Five Million Four Hundred and Thirty Dollar tax free estate status set by the IRS for 2015. Men who leave one fifty cent tip for two waitresses to split. Two women who have been graciously working their table for the last hour, listening to complaints about President Obama wanting to raise the minimum wage. On second thought maybe these old guys are millionaires after all.
An entire long lifetime of cautionary anecdotes brewing up to the conscious mind this week! Making us want to leave this business of will making alone and pretend it doesn’t matter. We do not have a large amount of assets, live modestly, and barring a lottery win will live this way until we both pass. But a lifetime of experiences and others’ experiences have loudly reminded us all week of the importance of getting this completed and getting it done right.
Medical directives and estate planning is not tied to a predetermined amount of wealth, possessions, your income, culture, spiritual enlightenment, or relationships. If you are an adult, you may really want to get it in writing what your health directives, and last thoughts about what/who you leave behind are when you die. Who is going to feed the dog? And let someone know while you are living where those documents live. Because whether it is today, next year or at the age of ninety six someone is going to have to clean up after you when you are gone.
Today’s music:Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money
Excuse me for now…got to go catch up on my living.
If you want legal information, insights, and referrals on the issue of Wills and Estates, the Cornell University Law School has an excellent website at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/estates_and_trusts.