It seems that the prevailing attitude towards writing a Last Will and Testament is that the best time to prepare one is right before you die. After all, the statistics show that around 70% of adults don’t have a Will in place.
Today I’ve read two articles that reinforce this strange notion. The first one comes from the memoirs of Dick Cheney. Apparently there was a point where Osama Bin Laden thought he was going to be captured. The memoir explains
“In the first months of the war in Afghanistan, we had bin Laden pinned down. According to the official report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was trapped like the rat he was in a collection of caves and tunnels in a part of eastern Afghanistan called Tora Bora. Bin Laden was so certain he was about to be killed he wrote his last will and testament.”
It seems astonishing to me that a person with Bin Laden’s resources and “political” position wouldn’t have taken the time at some point in his life to have written a Last Will and Testament. Perhaps there are cultural differences, but even in the Western World people seem to think that a Will is something to be written while lying on your deathbed. In fact, the best time to write a Will is right now. It can be updated as often as you like to reflect changes in your personal or financial situation, but waiting until you are just about to die is really bad planning.
The headline of this article made me laugh. “Anabelle forced to draft last will after death-defying flight”. The story goes that a person faced a near-death experience which made them realize that life was fragile, and they also realized that they didn’t have a Will in place. This happens a lot. When people see tragedy around them , they understand that they are not indestructible and calamity can hit any one of us at any time. The idea that Anabelle was then forced to write her Will is an interesting perspective; as if it’s the last thing any healthy person would want to do. In fact, you should be writing your Will when you are healthy and of sound mind and it should not be a task filled with dread and sorrow.
Everybody should have a Will, young or old, rich or poor, healthy or not.
One of the most common reasons cited for not preparing a Last Will and Testament is that “everybody knows what I want to happen” or “it’s obvious who will get my things.” Many people have a natural inclination to avoid all things bureaucratic and take an easier option if an alternative is available. There may also be an inherent distrust of the court system, tax collectors and the like, which prompts many people to avoid these institutions if at all possible.
In some people’s eyes the alternative approach to estate planning is to just jot down on a piece of paper that “my cousin Bill can have my home theatre system, my niece Sue can have my car and the rest can be divided up between my sisters”. Now, let’s explore why this is going to be a complete disaster.
Firstly, there’s nobody named to administer the estate. One of the most important appointments in a Will is the Executor and this person will control and moderate all distribution of the estate. In many cases, they are required to immediately change the locks on any property because sadly, it is only too common for people to rush into a home and pick through the belongings of a very recently departed person. The Executor controls this, and without an Executor there will be a very ugly free-for-all with accusations and suspicions poisoning the family spirit. If an object cannot be found, it will naturally be assumed that somebody has taken it. There’s also the danger of the same item being promised to different people at different times which often leads to previously amicable family members suddenly being unable to work together in harmony. One of the most important impacts of a Will is a formalization of this distribution of personal effects.
The other key responsibility of the Executor is to aggregate all of the items in order to put a value on the estate. You may want to avoid bureaucracy but unfortunately the taxman may still want their share. There may also be funeral expenses to be paid and perhaps even debts owed. If credit card companies are owed something, they will want their money, and this will be paid out of the estate before it is distributed to beneficiaries. Family members cannot start helping themselves to the estate until these obligations have been met and a Will helps to formalize that process.
Then there’s the matter of actually collecting the assets. Try walking into a bank and telling them that an account holder has died, and they wanted you to have everything they owned. You will not get very far at all. A bank will want formal documentation that you are the person that they should be releasing the assets to, and without a Will, the courts will take control of gathering the assets and then distributing them.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to plan your estate distribution informally using any other document that is not a Will. The good news is that it is possible to create your Will quickly and affordably at a service like those offered at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk.