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VALERIE SCHULTZ: Where there's a will

Valerie Schultz

Valerie Schultz

The appointment finally made, my husband and I felt quite mature as we entered our lawyer's office to write our will. Right away, I was surprised when our lawyer said, "Well, you're writing two wills." We had talked for so long about writing a will that, in my mind, it was a singular document, kind of like our marriage license. It should have been obvious to me that we'd each need our own separate will, but it was not.

Because, of course, the likely outcome of any long marriage is that a widow or a widower will remain. I think it would be nice to go out together — a gas leak or a tsunami, say — but statistically, one of us will be the heir named in the other's will.

We thought about establishing an irrevocable family trust instead of wills, but we soon realized that we don't have the kind of estate that would require it. A family trust avoids several months in probate court, which really won't delay much for our kids, and keeps your private business out of the public eye, which is also not a consideration we have to make. I mean, who cares? We aren't Jeff Bezos. Also, creating a trust would have cost several thousand dollars more than our wills. That made it an easy decision.

My parents, God rest them, were well off in their later years, so I imagine some attorney convinced them to spring for a fancy family trust. After they both died, however, their six children, among whom I am second, discovered that they hadn't put anything in the trust. The empty trust was basically a piece of paper. By then all of their assets were stashed away in savings accounts, so my sister and I, as the account beneficiaries, could have made off with their entire fortune. Which, of course, we did not. We didn't want our folks to haunt us.

But some families, upon the death of a loved one, do discover the devious relatives lurking among them, the ones who fight over money and assets and the family heirlooms. Stories of those bad experiences show that it's best not to rely on people's good graces after you're gone. A will can be a guardrail against bad behavior. A will can be a map for peace.

Writing your will these days includes granting a durable general power of attorney, which is someone who will deal with your money, and an advanced directive, which is someone who will deal with your life. Literally: This person will carry out your health care wishes and end-of-life requests. When you are sitting in a lawyer's office, in good health and joking about which kid will actually do what you want, it's hard to imagine the day when these documents will become meaningful, will be put into somber practice. All the same, a sense of your mortality lingers after you sign and initial your packet of papers.

My husband and I are in our 60s, and I am embarrassed to admit that this is our first will. Somehow we raised four children to adulthood without the benefit of a will, but for you young parents, don't be like us. It's important to designate fit guardians for your minor children, among other consequential considerations. You can accomplish this online, at home, without the expense of an in-person lawyer appointment, although our lawyer is a delightful woman and we recommend her. We were lucky not to have needed wills before this. I remember thinking, when my youngest daughter turned 18, "OK, I can die now." But it would have been a great disservice to her if her parents had died intestate before then. This has been a public service announcement.

As another public service, albeit closer to home, we are hoping that the relatively painless process of writing our wills will set an example for older family members. Yes, even though we are totally old, we still have even more seasoned relatives, so this is for them: Write your wills! Make some decisions. Let your end-of-life choices be known to someone. Your survivors will thank you.

We have shown our designated executor, our daughter who is currently in law school and who with luck will be a lawyer before we perish, where our wills are kept. One day, that information will matter.

I know from sad experience that this journey of life takes you from two parents to one parent to none. I hope my children get there, because that will mean they have outlived us, which is a parent's No. 1 wish. The wills we've written may give us a creepy feeling of an ever-closer expiration date, but if they make things a little easier for our darlings, they will have served their purpose.

We just hope they don't fight over the "heirlooms" we leave behind.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at vschultz22@gmail.com. The views expressed here are her own.

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