Frequently we’ve written here on the AgingOptions Blog about the number of Americans who have never gotten around to even the basics of estate planning. Following that important theme, we present this article from Forbes, in which contributing writer Lazetta Rainey Braxton brings a valuable perspective to the issue. Braxton is both a pastor’s wife and a financial planner, and she has seen firsthand the devastation families can face when a loved one refuses to take steps while living to preserve family peace once they’re gone. (Braxton’s article was originally published on the NextAvenue website.)
Her implied question is obvious: when the solution is so simple, why would you willfully put your family through such an ordeal? You owe it to them to do your basic planning today and give them the gift of peace of mind. Let’s see what Braxton has to say.
The Horrors of Dying Without A Will
Braxton begins her article with a stark portrait: “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.”
In these situations, it’s all-too easy for accusations to crowd out the condolences, such as who deserves what, how much, and who doesn’t deserve anything at all.
“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,” Braxton writes. “Yet we’ve seen this many times before, in real life, and while scrolling news feeds on our smartphone.”
Celebrities Can Be Terrible Examples
Braxton points out that even celebrities get this wrong. Prince, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin are high-profile examples of stars who passed away suddenly without a will in place, leaving those who survived them to battle it out over their estates.
“As a financial planner,” Braxton writes, “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.”
Three Primary Roadblocks to Estate Planning
In Braxton’s experience—and the experience of attorney Max Elliott, whom she quotes for her article—there are three big reasons why people avoid figuring out their estate.
Roadblock #1: Not knowing how wealth transfer works. Attorney Max Elliot said, “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. 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.”
Roadblock #2: Fear of death. An age-old concern. Many people just don’t want to think about mortality, and that keeps them from planning for the inevitable. But Elliott urges those people to reconsider, stating 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.”
Roadblock #3: Not wanting to deal with the expense. Many people labor under the false assumption that hiring an estate attorney is costly, so they try to take matters into their own hands. But this can lead to heartbreak. Elliott insists that working with a professional is well worth the investment, so that “clients have one less thing to worry about during their lifetimes and toward the end.”
Securing Your Legacy
When you boil it down, Braxton writes, “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?”
These questions may be tough, but they don’t really have any “wrong” answers. And once you’ve answered them, you’ll be able to write them down into legal documentation. This is the foundation of securing your legacy for the future.
Securing Your Estate Planning Documents
Braxton explains, “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.”
She adds, “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.”
Braxton suggests exploring various paths for drafting your estate plan. If you’re stumped, ask around. Family, friends, colleagues, and financial planners may have trusted referrals to give you. Employers may offer legal benefits, and even online estate planning services like Trust & Will, Rocket Lawyer, and Legal Zoom can be of help, although personal attention by an attorney is always best.
Braxton ends her article beautifully: “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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(originally reported at www.forbes.com)