By Lorie Burch, Owner & Founding Attorney of Burch Law
I often get inquires about people who just “need” a “simple” Will. I am always curious as to what people perceive as “simple”. Do they think their family isn’t complicated? They don’t have many assets? They don’t want to spend a lot of money? Regardless of the reason, I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as a simple Will!
I know some believe that only those with a high net worth need the time and attention of a well-crafted Will or trust. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the mechanics of how your estate is distributed is quite often the same regardless of how much money or property you own. More often than not, the ease of distributing your estate comes down to the way your Will is drafted or executed. A great example is a few years ago when a woman came in after her father passed away. He had created a Will online because “all” he had was a house, investment account, and a car. He wasn’t married and wanted to leave everything to his two adult children. Simple, right? Before I even reviewed the language of the Will, I noticed that her father and each of the two witnesses all signed on different days! Why? Because no one was there to guide them. My client asked if that was a problem and I had to gently tell her that it was a huge complication in that the Will isn’t valid. At all. She asked if we could at least show it to the judge, but the answer is no. If a Will is not properly signed and executed, it’s as if it never existed. Instead, we had to go through a lengthy heirship determination through an attorney ad litem. This took a great deal more time and a lot more money to settle this “simple” estate.
Some also believe that if their family isn’t complicated, then their Will should be as equally uncomplicated. This is one of the biggest mistakes I see parents of minor children make. Many families will assume everything will fall into place automatically and/or everyone will work it out. One of the best examples I can give is when it comes to beneficiary designations on life insurance, retirement, and brokerage accounts. I’ve had clients who felt like they either didn’t need a Will or, again, could just do a form online. What they are missing is the advice and planning outside of the Will, particularly with beneficiary designations. Did you know that your beneficiary assignments on these assets override anything a Will states? To make matters more complicated (or should I say less “simple!”), you absolutely should NOT name minor children as a beneficiary EVEN if you have a Will that establishes a trust for them. Unless your beneficiary is coordinated to actually feed into that trust, those assets will be tied up by the financial institution that holds them and a court will have to designate a custodian for the funds, which will be distributed to the child at age 18! I have yet to meet a parent who thinks 18 years old is a good time to have a chunk of money handed to a child. How can this be avoided? By realizing that even the simplest of circumstances require careful and thorough planning with a professional.
Finally, I believe many say they want a “simple” Will because they do not want to spend a lot of money. Now, I understand that; however, a friend of mine likes to say “cheap gets very expensive.” Just look at the example above about the man who didn’t have his Will witnessed properly. The cost and time it took to sort that out far exceeded what he would have spent if he had seen a qualified Wills & trusts attorney. One of the reasons I spend so much time educating families and individuals is to help them see the true value in creating a solid estate plan regardless of how “simple” their life and assets seem. In this consumer age where people don’t think twice about dropping thousands of dollars on the newest flat screen TV, fancy jewelry, or lavish vacations, I’m amazed that they don’t see the same value to those dollars when it comes to protecting their family from a reality that WILL face them…unless you’ve figured out a way to cheat death. I realize that is not nearly as fun to contemplate as buying the newest thingamajig, but I think everyone will agree that it is exponentially more important.
Does this mean you have to spend a lot of money to have advanced estate planning? No! But no matter your circumstances, it is worth taking a little bit of time and seeing the value of working with an attorney who can guide you in putting a plan in place so you can have peace of mind that you won’t leave your family in a bind when your time comes.
Life isn’t simple and neither is your Will!