Dying Without a Will

Published In Law

Three months ago, a very close friend was running four miles a day.

Two months ago, he was diagnosed with a “rare and aggressive” form of cancer.

Two weeks ago, he began chemotherapy.

Two days ago, he died of a heart attack at the age of 69.

My dear friend led a very responsible life including serving as a captain in the U.S. Army and several corporate executive positions with Fortune 100 companies.  In retirement he exercised daily, managed his diet, and visited his sons and their families regularly.  He was on the homeowner’s board of the community he lived in for 39 years. He was well respected and much loved.

The Consequences of Dying Without a Will

But, my friend — this conscientious man — died without ever creating a will. He knew he should but despite suggestions over the years he never did. So he died with no will (that is, intestate).  Now the county court will decide how his property will be divided. His sons, both of whom live out of state, will need to manage the administration and distribution of his property when the court decides. They scrambled to hire a local attorney (at my recommendation someone they have not met), while making funeral arrangements on short notice, before they had to fly home to resume their employment responsibilities. The attorney has told them the process may take several months — likely six to twelve months — for the court to grant their petitions and allow them to liquidate and distribute their father’s assets. In the meantime, they will have to lend money to the estate to pay property taxes, utility bills (you cannot let a house go without any heat), maintenance of the property (because they will want to sell it as soon as the court allows), property insurance, auto insurance, etc. Their father’s estate will incur probate costs of more than $25,000.00 that could have been avoided. If their father had a valid will, going through probate would have accelerated the distribution of the estate. Better yet, if he had planned ahead and had a trust, then the time-consuming and costly court system could have been avoided all together.

Why my friend refused to manage his estate responsibilities we will never know. Was it because he was in such good health that he thought he would live many more years?

Was it because he did not consider himself a wealthy person even with an estate of over $1 million?

Was it because he just did not want to think about dying?

We will never know.

Shirking Responsibility

I do know that it was not because he did not love his sons and two beautiful granddaughters. Furthermore, he knew the destruction that “inheriting money too early in life is not a blessing in the end.” (Proverbs 20:21)

Yet the responsibility was his and he failed to accept it. He would be very upset to see the time, money and efforts his sons are expending in managing a responsibility that was his. An otherwise truly responsible life will have somewhat of an irresponsible ending.

While traveling the week of his memorial service, I came across some telling statistics cited in The Journal of Financial Planning (April 2019 edition), revealing my friend’s lack of action is not alone:

  • 52% of adults in the U.S. have NOT made a will.
  • Only 28% of adults know their parent’s legacy wishes.
  • American families spend $2 billion a year on probate costs that could be avoided.
  • 50% of inheritances are squandered shortly after receipt.

The Lessons We Can All Take Away

Learn from my friend’s mistake. Manage the responsibility that is truly yours and yours alone. Efficiently consider and document your legacy wishes. Ideally and rankly, you will discuss your wishes with your family members. (I realize family relationships and dynamics may prevent such conversations.)  However, if and when possible, those big conversations will inform your loved ones of your wishes and how you want things handled on death … without court intervention.

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