In researching my book, Leaving Life, I discovered that the lack of proper estate planning is somewhat of an epidemic within the baby-boomer generation. The result of not preparing a proper will or living trust can lead to heirs, partners and children fighting over assets or possessions. Irreparable relationships are often the byproduct of settling an estate that has not clearly made provisions for distribution of real-estate, collectibles, stocks, cash and various assets that have purely sentimental value.
The children of the late Martin Luther King Jr. spent several years in the court system fighting over custody of Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize and his traveling Bible. Most everyone has heard stories of families torn apart over money and valuable items.
Stress, anxiety and uncertainty all undermine our good health. Attempting to settle a poorly crafted will or lack of living trust can lead to years of legal headaches, including probate court, lawyers, litigation and extended stress for all parties involved.
I know. My father passed away in 1989, leaving an incomplete estate plan. Ben Seidel was an award-winning life insurance salesman for Metropolitan Life. He understood the financial world. However, he hadn’t quite worked out how to provide for a disabled child without losing their state medical benefits. Unfortunately, an untimely heart attack left our family with an incomplete estate plan and many details to unravel.
I was totally unprepared for managing a team of lawyers, accountants and bookkeepers, and was thrust into the world of settling a complicated estate, facing the probate court process as well. It took two years of work and adjustments before everything was settled and the distribution of assets could go forward to our mother. After we accomplished this, I engaged a competent estate attorney to draft my mother’s living trust.
Ten years later, when my mother passed, her estate was quickly settled with no hassles, problems or time delays. This process prompted me to think about the importance and obligation we all have to spare our heirs the distressing and stressful experience my family had to endure as a result of my father’s incomplete estate plan.
There was also the challenge of disposing of a huge amount of “stuff.” My parents rarely got rid of unused items. It was necessary to sort out and dispose of or donate tons of acquisitions. As such, I advocate for culling and disposing of one’s possessions during our lifetime to save our survivors from having to go through our junk and make hard decisions to save or dispose of them.
If you own collectibles, I recommend photographing and appraising these items to help take the mystery out of dealing with the value upon your demise and perhaps aid your family in obtaining a fair price if they wish to sell them.
The question of why people avoid planning their estates, final arrangements, advanced medical directives and durable power of attorney, etc., has to do with the resistance to facing one’s mortality. In our “forever young” culture, people don’t want to face the fact they are going to die, and dealing with this reality can be difficult for many.
Writing a will is an acknowledgment of the reality that our life is finite. There are not unlimited years allotted to us, even if we are in the best of health, and the avoidance of preparing your affairs is a byproduct of this illusion.
Creating a proper estate plan is the compassionate and responsible course of action to take for your loved ones. In doing so, you also gain peace of mind and the knowledge that your final wishes have been made clear. I hope this message reaches a wide audience and helps many engage in this most important responsibility to themselves and their loved ones.
Neil Seidel of Palm Springs is a former teacher at Loyola Marymount University, California State University and Los Angeles City College. His book Leaving Life is available as an e-book on Amazon.com. Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.