Why everyone needs a will

| September 19, 2011

Everything we got, we got the hard way.
– Mary Chapin Carpenter

I’ve spent my adult life advising people about their money. I’m knowledgeable about trusts and estate planning and have strong working relationships with experts in both fields.

I should be the last person to be involved in an estate-planning nightmare. But I was when my mother and sister died.
Mom died unexpectedly in 2006. She never had a will, and no one worried about it. Her only asset was our childhood home, and my sister and I were her only children. We would split the ownership of the house equally.

Things got a lot more complicated after Mom’s death.

My sister and daughter were living in the house when Mom died. My sister was coming off a period of unemployment as a single mother. She didn’t even have a bank account. My sister and I worked out a deal on how to divide Mom’s assets.

We never wrote anything down, but we trusted each other, and it seemed like a good plan. And it was – until my sister died six months after mom did. She did not have a will either.

I knew she had a minor daughter and an adult son. What I didn’t know was that she still had a husband.

She had been married for several years, and her younger child was his. However, she had told us she had divorced several years earlier. They didn’t live together. She had lived in California and he had lived in Cincinnati.

Her ex came to her funeral, which I had arranged and paid for, but we didn’t really talk.

Two days later, he had a lawyer file papers asking that he be named the estate administrator.

It turned out my sister and her husband never filed for divorce. Thus, he was entitled to half of my sister’s estate.

Since Mom’s estate had not settled, it also meant that her estranged husband and his lawyer suddenly became involved in decisions regarding my mother’s estate. Also, my niece was a minor, and a guardian ad litem had to be appointed to protect her interest. The guardian ad litem also had to sign off on decisions about Mom’s estate.

It was a tedious and expensive mess.

The only solution was to put my childhood home on the market. I advanced a chunk of money to get it fixed for sale. Since the real estate market was dropping, the house was slow to sell, and every time we wanted to change the price, it had to go through the round of lawyers and interested parties.

It caused a riff in the family over very little money. By the time the lawyers and expenses were paid, my share of my mother’s estate was a small sum and my sister’s estate received the same. I ate some expenditures and lost money on the overall process.
The person who got the most money from my mother’s estate was my former brother-in-law. My sister’s estate received half of Mom’s money, and he received half of my sister’s estate.

My mother doted on her grandchildren, especially my sister’s children, who had lived with her for part of their childhoods. She would not have wanted my brother-in-law to get money instead of her grandchildren. Preventing that from happening would have been easy and inexpensive.

My family’s series of events was unusual, but unusual things happen every day.

Involving a lawyer would have solved most of the problems. If my sister and my mother had had simple wills, the money would have gone to the right people. If my sister had actually gotten divorced instead of working out an informal agreement, it would have prevented our post-funeral surprise.

I suspect people don’t have wills because they don’t want to think about death. According to a survey by Findlaw.com, a popular legal website, more than 60 percent of Americans don’t have wills.

People may think that wills and attorneys are expensive. In the overall scheme of things, they really aren’t. I gladly would have paid 10 times the average cost for my mother and sister to have had wills. And everyone (but my brother-in-law and the attorneys) would have come out way ahead.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC  of Richmond Kentucky is the best sellling author of the book “Wealth Without Wall Street: A Main Street Guide to Making Money.” He is an award-winning financial columnist and Huffington Post contributor.

Category: Don McNay

About the Author (Author Profile)

Don McNay
Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the best sellling author of the book Wealth Without Wall Street: A Main Street Guide to Making Money.

McNay is an award winning financial columnist and Huffington Post Contributor.

He is the Chairman of the Board for the McNay Settlement Group (www.mcnay.com) which provides structured settlement consulting for injury victims, lottery winners, and the families of special needs children.

McNay founded Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC, which assists attorneys in as conservators and setting up guardianship’s. It is nationally recognized as an administrator of Qualified Settlement (468b) funds.

Don has appeared on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and over 100 radio and television programs.

McNay has Master’s Degrees from Vanderbilt and the American College and is in the Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Distinguished Alumni. Don is a Quarter Century member of the Million Dollar Round Table and has four professional designations in the financial services field.

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