Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Have a will...

None of us like to think about death or the process of dying --- our own or that of someone close to us. It's important though to think about things like the possibility of nursing homes, long-term illness and what might happen after we're gone.

I've heard too many tales from family and friends about what can happen with or without a will after someone dies. Families squabble over a piece of jewelry that Sue said grandma promised to her and Jane says was promised to her. One member of a family wants to hang onto the parents property while another wants to sell. Little things can cause huge problems.

In my family we experienced a problem that has caused a rift that I can't see being healed.

My grandparents had a long-standing and oft-talked-about will that divided everything equally between their three children. My grandfather died, then years later my grandmother. My grandmother spent the last few years of her life living with my uncle. After her death the other siblings discovered that my uncle had induced my grandmother to change her will and leave everything to him with his son as the heir should he die before then.

One sister wanted to sue, the other didn't. No agreement, thus no action. Now there are three who rarely talk to each other and children who won't give my uncle the time of day (including yours truly... and he used to be my hero).

While the damage to the family was horrible, the damage to our memory of our grandmother was just as serious. It's impossible to think about her without the tinge of what our uncle did affecting the memory.

We all knew she was suffering from dementia and easily led. Depending on who she was visiting or talking to she'd tell them she was going to give them her house and other valuables. She didn't remember what she'd said right after saying it and would repeat herself over and over. It was clear she was not legally in her "right mind". We trusted our uncle, he was always above reproach. So what happened? Who knows.

Not much any of us could have done to stop the will from being changed as we weren't aware. People do strange things when money is involved and you can't prepare for every contingency. However, as a living, breathing, responsible adult, you sure can make out a will and do whatever possible to avoid potential problems.

Here's the article that made me think about all of our family's difficulties. Good advice.

Wills Help to Avoid Confusion, Fights After Death

A few weeks after they married, Joan Koonce’s husband was diagnosed with leukemia. Their marital bliss turned instantly to anxiety and long hours in the hospital.

“We really didn’t have time to think or feel,” Koonce said. “We just got into action.”

Two and a half years later, she said goodbye to him for the last time. They hadn’t planned for death so early in their lives.

He had created a will during his previous marriage. But a will is invalid in Georgia if someone remarries, has a child or adopts a child after the document is drawn up. After his death, she was left to deal with the paperwork and headache of watching the state dole out her husband’s estate.

It is important to update your will when these situations occur, said Koonce, an associate professor and financial management specialist for University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.
The life expectancy of a female born today is 80 years. It is 75 years for a man, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those years aren’t promised.

“You need to prepare early,” Koonce said. “And you need to make changes to your will as your family situation and circumstances change.”

Writing a will means thinking about death, a topic a lot of people don’t want to talk about, she said.

“Making decisions about who you want to have what and how you want it distributed to them can become overwhelming,” Koonce said, “and the more you have, the harder it gets.”
Even if you aren’t rich, she said, a will is still important.

“You don’t have to own a lot to have a will,” she said. “What you own may not have huge monetary value, but if it has lots of sentimental value. If you want to make sure it goes to a particular person, then you need to have a will.”

It’s often those sentimental things that are fought over the most. “For example, it may be important that your granddaughter gets your doll collection,” she said.

To get started with a will, she gives these tips:

1. Start early. Many young, unmarried people don’t think about estate planning. But they should, just as they should think about the possibility of disability or the inability to earn an income.
2. List your heirs. Beside each name, list what you want them to have. Be as detailed as possible.
3. Meet with an attorney. While online kits are available, attorneys know state laws “and can help you think through many things that can become issues after you die,” she said.
Koonce had her will redrawn this year. If something happens to her son, her assets will go to her church.

“My lawyer included the current address or wherever the church is located at my death,” she said. Attorneys “think about those things we don’t think about. Once the attorney mentioned it, I realized how important it was because there are other churches with the same name.”

The cost for drawing up a will can range from $300 and up, depending on the complexity of the will and estate planning.

Author Stephanie Schupska is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
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