BAD THINGS CAN HAPPEN WITHOUT PLANNING
Myron G. Finley*
* Not admitted in Florida
There's something different in the air today. I can't say we've identified the cause, but we have sure seen the effects. Let me explain.
I have been troubled for years that fewer than 10% of the citizens of this country have prepared a will. That, in itself, is not really such a big deal. Wills don't usually make people rich, famous or popular, and thus tend not to draw much of the public's attention.
What amazes me, though, is that this statistic may actually reveal that fewer than 10% of us have confronted and planned for the effects we will cause when we die. I realize that this is not always an easy thing to do, but the consequences of poor or no planning can be disastrous. The problem is that, in the absence of planning, we tend to be adversely affected by that which hasn't been planned. More importantly to many people, our loved ones are generally the ones adversely affected by our own failure to plan for death.
My own father died suddenly at the age of 51. I was 12, my brother was 14. Dad had planned enough to draw up a simple will, but had done nothing to make things easier on my mom. She became involved immediately in a court proceeding known as probate (a Latin word meaning proof,as in proof of a valid will. Mom spent many thousands of dollars on probate over the year it took to complete. There was nothing really complicated about my dad's estate, but it frequently takes a year to get through probate simply because that is how long the process takes.
Probate was just the beginning. During my mom's marriage to my dad, she had been a dedicated housewife. She knew nothing about his business, his investments or his plans for the family's future. Suddenly, when he died, she inherited a situation and a job that was a complete mystery to her. Her education in the School of Hard Knocks had just begun.
My mom was a very capable and motivated person, and over the next few years she got the information she needed. She took responsibility for planning the family's future, and formulated her own life plan. As a result, when she died there was no need for probate. This was not because she had less property. Actually,she had more than tripled the amount my father left her, in addition to sending both her sons through college and one through law school. Rather, with a very little attention to planning, she arranged her affairs so that probate was simply not necessary.
That's the best thing about life planning. The bad consequences of death can mostly be avoided with ease and not a lot of complexity. In my mom's case, the key factor was two simple documents, which her lawyer drew up for her at a total cost of less than $3,000. That one action saved my brother and I tens of thousands of dollars when she died.
My mom was understandably upset when my dad died. She was only 42 at the time, and had pretty much idolized him during their marriage. He was her life partner as well as her best friend. However, because he had done no real planning, her upset did not diminish over time as it should have. Instead, as she learned more and more about how he had left things and how much that was going to cost us, she got more and more upset. She was just plain mad at him, for years after his deathBand although she tried to hide it, my brother and I could see it well enough.
This is one of the unexpected results of little or poor planning: it tends to make for bad feelings and generally makes death harder to bear for the family. This is not an effect most people seek to create.
So what is the change we've noticed? People seem to be planning more. In the past, we have found we have to put out a lot of communication about life planning before we convince one of our clients to fill out an Estate Planning Questionnaire. However, in the last six months several of our clients have approached us and actually demanded that we put together a basic life plan for them before they fly off on business or vacation trips.
This may be partly a reflection of the fact that we're all getting older. As that happens, it is natural to focus more realistically on what could happen and the probable consequences. It may also be partly a reaction to the events of September 11. With international terrorism Aout of the closet, and constant reminders at every airport in the country of the risks we all run, it is difficult to contemplate a trip by air without also knowing how risky such travel has become.
Whatever the reason, we are encouraged to see this trend emerge. We've seldom seen a situation that could not be improved with a little planning, and we are relieved that people are doing it without our having to nag them into it.
If you've thought about what might happen to your loved ones when you move on, you may want to start planning now for that eventuality. Even if you haven't thought about it yet, it is a relatively easy thing to do. All life planning begins with the completion of an Estate Planning Questionnaire. Simply call or drop by our office to pick up your own, and get the planning process started. Your loved ones will thank you for it.