Preventing The Horrors Of Dying Without A Will

By Lazetta Rainey Braxton, Next Avenue

As a “preacher’s wife” (so vividly portrayed by Whitney Houston in a cinematic classic), I have witnessed many funerals where confusion and animosity clouded a celebration of life due to the proper lack of estate planning. Specifically, when there is no will in place, all hell tends to break loose at a time when families should be hosting angels.

Claims and accusations start to fly: “Mom promised me the house;” “I took care of our parents while you were busy running the streets so I deserve the money;” or even “While they were alive, they spent all of the money on you, bailing you out of your mess — your inheritance is already spent!”

It’s hard for a family to recuperate when the patriarchs and matriarchs have gone to glory, leaving a battle for who will carry the family’s leadership role and manage the family’s transition of wealth. Yet we’ve seen this many times before, in real life, and while scrolling news feeds on our smartphone.

Celebrities, They’re Just Like Us

The horrors of dying without a will have manifested in the lives of even the most well-situated individuals who had the resources to pay for professional assistance. I bellowed Prince’s song, “When Doves Cry,” when I discovered Prince left this earth, and learning he died without executing a will sent me over the edge. While Prince belted out anguish over heartbreak, my heart cringed over the ensuing financial chaos that answers Prince’s poignant question: “Why do we scream at each other?”

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Prince’s death compounded my unresolved disbelief regarding Whitney Houston’s tragic death and legal estate battles. While I wholeheartedly feel Houston’s declaration that “I will always love you,” love also shows up by taking care of financial affairs including having estate planning documents in order.

As a financial planner, this is one important lesson that I know well — celebrities are human, too, and legal and family battles pertaining to wealth transfers don’t discriminate based on income.

My best advice? Take the time now to determine what’s holding you back and commit to moving forward with putting a plan and documents in place.

Overcoming Mental Roadblocks

What hinders individuals from getting estate planning documents in place?

In her experience, Max Elliott, managing attorney at Max Elliott, Ltd. discovered three primary reasons why individuals avoid establishing estate plans:

Limited understanding regarding wealth transfers. “Many individuals with modest estates (e.g., a home, retirement nest egg, and/or savings account) do not consider their possessions worthy of planning, when the opposite is true,” said Elliott. “For example, individuals often think, ‘My child will inherit my home,’ without considering the ramifications if the young adult child [would] be able to assume the mortgage,” as an example.

Fear of mortality. Elliott also has observed clients who lagged in finishing estate planning documents long after starting the process due to fear. As a financial planner, some of my clients confessed that conversations about death felt like an omen for a premature death. Elliott gently reinforces that “talking about what will happen if you die or if you become permanently dependent is an important and loving discussion to have and process to undertake.”

Perceived lack of salient benefit. Many individuals believe securing an estate planning attorney is either unnecessary or too costly. Often, taking matters into your own hands can have undesirable consequences for the estate and heirs. By working with professionals who keep your best interests first, Elliott assures that “clients have one less thing to worry about during their lifetimes and toward the end.”

Identify Your Wishes

At its core, estate planning documents are simply the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you leave this earth. You likely know a lot of the answers to these pressing questions already, such as:

  • How should your money be distributed after you die?
  • What family member or friend do you trust the most to act in your best interest and execute your wishes?
  • Who should look after your children if both primary caregivers die before they reach adulthood?

When we break it down in layman’s terms, we are talking about having conversations, albeit difficult ones, but with no wrong answers.

Now, we pair these questions with some legal documents.

Explore Securing Estate Planning Documents

The suite of estate planning documents includes a will, trust (if desired), durable financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney or advanced directive, and living will.

By definition, a will is a written document that details your wishes and how your estate should be managed following your death; a trust adds a layer of privacy (to avoid filing with the court) and streamlined asset transfers.

In circumstances of incapacity due to illness or injury, power of attorneys (POAs) grant agency to trusted family members, friends or colleagues who you know will carry out your wishes regarding your finances and health care. The living will details your desire for end-of-life medical care. Individuals who serve as POA representatives may also be executors or trustees for your estate upon your death.

As you explore the right path for drafting your estate planning documents, know the myriad options available. Ask for referrals from trusted individuals such as family members, colleagues, and financial planners; determine if your employer offers offer legal benefit services such as MetLife Legal; and review online estate planning services such as Trust & Will, Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom.

In the spirit of Whitney Houston, I encourage you to share the “Greatest Love of All” by loving yourself enough to face your fears and give the gift of having your estate planning affairs in order for your sake and for generations to come.

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