Failing to Make a Will: A Final Act of Unkindness

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We've made it to the middle of January, that time of year that is the graveyard for so many New Year's resolutions. Even if you abandon any other resolutions you may have made, please carry out a very important one: Make a will.

According to estate planning attorney John J. Scroggin, about two-thirds of Americans don’t have wills. Surprisingly, people over age 65 are twice as likely to avoid estate planning as those who are younger.

Surely, though, the rich and famous must be conscientious about estate planning. Not so; those with significant wealth are no more likely to have wills than those with no money. Just a few of the wealthy people who have died intestate (without a will) were Prince, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King, Jr., Picasso, and Abraham Lincoln.

My guess is that few of the people without wills would see themselves as failing to prepare for a financial crisis that has significant consequences. Dying without a will, unlike failing to save for emergencies or insure your property or prepare for retirement, is a consequence-free event – for the deceased. It is anything but consequence-free for the survivors, who are often left to cope with a financial crisis on top of an emotional one.

Not having a will impacts surviving family members in many possible ways: demands on their time, increased complexities and costs to the estate, strain on family relationships, the need to make decisions about treasured family heirlooms and history. There is almost no upside to survivors when someone dies intestate, only a lot of pain and heartache. Coping with a loved one's death and carrying out their last wishes is hard enough. It's even harder for those struggling with what one of my clients described as "would have" estate planning: trying to figure out what the deceased "would have" wanted.

Why would anyone inflict this excess pain on their loved ones? Almost certainly not as an intentional last act of cruelty or neglect. Ironically, it is likely that anyone wanting to use their estate to deliberately punish family members would do so by making a will.