Estate Planning Really IS For Everyone

A couple high profile stories have been published recently regarding the disposition of multi-million dollar estates, demonstrating the dire importance of having an updated last will in place. Most notable was a case involving the dispute of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s widow’s estate, in which Mrs. Davis’s assets (including rights to Sammy’s artistic property), were in danger of passing into the wrong hands. Luckily the LA County court decided in favor of Manny Davis, the survivor of Sammy and Altovise Davis because there was sufficient evidence supporting her self-drafted will.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
The more interesting case involves the relatively unknown drama behind the estate of Stieg Larsson, author of the wildly popular Millennium trilogy that began with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Larsson passed away unexpectedly in 2004 at age 50 without a will, leaving his long time live-in girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson with nothing. He had written the trilogy as a means to provide retirement income to himself and Gabrielsson but died before the books became a sensation. Control of his literary legacy went to his estranged father and brother by Swedish law, who are reaping the benefits of the delayed success of the books.

Dragon Tattoo
As these cases demonstrate, the signing of a will can make all the difference in ensuring your wishes are carried out should you die unexpectedly. And while these stories involve extraordinary wealth and pop culture influence, they also demonstrate why it is necessary to take care of this important step in your family’s well being. Not having a will in place leaves control of the disposition of your assets and possibly your children to the state in which you reside. It also makes a sad and difficult time for your survivors even more painful, as your wishes may not be realized.

Most people put off drafting a will for a couple reasons. First, they think it is wildly expensive and time consuming, so they procrastinate in favor of when they have more time and money to deal with it. While the process can be lengthy depending on the complications of your situation (second marriage, step-kids or a small business to name a few), most estate planning attorneys these days offer a “package” price, where you know what it will cost before you get started.

If you still think that can be a drag, try Legal Zoom, which offers a fill-in-the-blanks will starting at just $69. As the Sammy Davis, Jr. case demonstrates, these wills contain the necessary legalese to stand in court. But again, if you have a more complicated estate I suggest engaging a qualified attorney who can help you address issues you may not be aware of.

The other reason I find people avoid the process is that they just don’t want to consider their own mortality. They figure they don’t really need a will until they start collecting Social Security. I get this. I cried while typing out my burial wishes to be included with my will. The last thing I want to contemplate is where I want my ashes spread. But someday it’s going to be done, and avoiding painful thoughts of what will most certainly be is not a valid excuse to leave your kids at risk of becoming wards of the state.

If you don’t have a will, do you know what would happen to your family if you were to die unexpectedly? Depending on the state you live in, your estate may not pass 100% to your surviving spouse (or your parents if you are single). And even if it did, dying “intestate,” which literally means “not making a will,” is a much more burdensome and expensive process than if you had a will stating your intentions. And if you’re not married but have kids or a significant other, the result can be even more devastating for your loved ones.

As Benjamin Franklin so famously said, “… in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

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