Quite improbably, Aretha Franklin died without a will. She was wealthy, with a net worth in the millions of dollars. She has four sons, one of whom is incapacitated, and a niece who has agreed to act as executor. The denouement will take place in full public view, something the very private Franklin apparently would have hated. Resolving her estate will take time, and be open to challenge. Not a good way to go.
During the years of our financial planning business, we worked with clients who had old wills not updated, or too restrictive wills, or no will at all. In one memorable case, Jerry met with an older couple, the very traditional husband having named the bank as trustee for all of his assets and requiring his wife to appeal to the bank trust officer for anything above a very basic allowance. Jerry convinced the man that in this day and age, such a restrictive document was unfair to his wife and unnecessary — and potentially costly, as the bank would charge every time the estate officer opened the file. The man ultimately agreed to change the will, walked out of the appointment, and died. His wife was stuck with an antediluvian relationship with a probably frequently changing bank trust officer for the rest of her life.
One reason people avoid making wills is the desire to avoid hard decisions. I worked with a quite wealthy woman who had three grown offspring. Her two sons were financially successful, her daughter less so. The daughter had been the one to care for her mother, invite her to things, make her part of her family life, in general see that she was happy and content in her old age. The woman wanted to leave the bulk of her estate to the daughter, with only token amounts to her sons. But she didn’t want them to know. I urged her not to do that — to make the decision she wanted, but to write a letter to be included with her will explaining why she made the decision she did, and assuring all three of her love for them. She and her estate attorney agreed, and the letter was written.
Some people who need a will and don’t have one simply don’t want to think about death. It’s surprising to me, that as Franklin lay dying of pancreatic cancer, that she still avoided making a will.
My philosophy is that dying well is part of living well. If you have an old will or no will, sit with a competent estate attorney and get a new document. Review it with an attorney about every five years. Don’t use a will to express lingering anger — you can’t take back a strike from the grave, and doing one last bit of damage isn’t a good way to leave this world.
Don’t, like Aretha Franklin, throw everything up in the air and hope it comes down in all the right places.