Line up estate now, ease burdens later
Sally Herigstad assumed her father would leave his affairs in good order before he died. But when that happened in 2005, Ms. Herigstad, of Kent, Wash., discovered that she was wrong.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"The will was 20 years old and preceded his last marriage and divorce," she says. "About the only thing it accomplished was designating me as the executor. His apartment and affairs were messy beyond belief."
Her situation mirrors that of countless families who discover that a relative's estate is in disarray, either because a will is inadequate or nonexistent, or because they must deal with a lifetime accumulation of possessions.
Nearly 60 percent of adult Americans do not have wills, according to the legal website FindLaw.com. Other estimates put the figure closer to 70 percent. Whatever the reality, attorneys, estate planners, and authors are creating books, workbooks, and seminars to help families stop procrastinating and start taking charge of estate planning. Such matters grow increasingly urgent in an age of divorce, remarriage, and stepfamilies.
"It is absolutely essential to have a will and at least a living trust," says Kraig Kast, CEO of Atherton Trust in Redwood Shores, Calif. He notes that a living trust avoids probate, a costly, time- consuming process. "Probate only benefits attorneys, never the heirs," he warns.
"It's so simple to address this," Mr. Kast adds. At minimum, he says, a person should have a durable power of attorney for finance, a durable power of attorney for health, a will, and a living trust. "The whole thing can be done in probably one or two meetings with a qualified adviser."
Without such planning, some heirs must interrupt their lives and careers for extended periods to put an estate in order. Herigstad, a CPA and author, initially told her editor and book agent that she needed a week off. That stretched to two months. "My sisters flew west to help for a few days, and then I was left to sort out the rest," she says. "They couldn't help that. I'm the only one who lived within driving distance, and I was the executor. But I felt that they moved on with their lives while I made calls to probate courts and made decisions about thousands of treasures and piles of junk."
Despite the awkward silence that often surrounds estate planning, a survey by The Hartford, an insurance and investment group, finds that parents are more willing to discuss these issues than their baby-boom children are. Parents without wills are also more likely to feel comfortable about being approached on the subject than children believe.
At the same time, children are less likely to know specifics about the estate plan, including how to locate important papers and safe deposit boxes, than parents think.
When David Finkle, a drama critic in New York, visited his mother in New Jersey, she often said, "You should know where certain things are, in case something happens to me." But, he says, "I was not eager to think about it, and I didn't pay strict attention." Yet because all her legal papers were in order, settling her estate proved to be a relatively smooth process. She had also taken him to the bank where her safe deposit box was and told him where to find the keys.
To help families create orderly estates, Mr. Finkle and Ellen Baumritter wrote "Putting Things in Order: A Journal to Organize Your Life for the Next Generation."
Finkle believes hushed attitudes about estates are changing. Ten years ago, when he and Ms. Baumritter finished their book, publishers liked it but were uncomfortable with end-of-life issues. Today, they sense a growing willingness to address them.
As one way to break the silence, professionals encourage families to start a conversation.
"It's very important to have family meetings where everything is discussed and it is decided who gets what," says Matthew Tuttle, a certified financial planner in Stamford, Conn. "Often parents make the mistake of leaving things out of the will that cause fighting later. Also parents make the mistake of splitting an illiquid asset like a home, where one child might want to keep it and the other might want to sell it. Family meetings can take care of these issues."