This is a cautionary tale of what can happen when people create a do-it-yourself will without the help of an estate planning attorney. As Ms. Cockrum told News 2 in the article “The power of a will and trouble without one,” she’s going from court procedure to court procedure, and feels overwhelmed. The entire issue would have been prevented with a properly prepared will.
Without a valid will, a judge must determine how to divide assets in an estate. In this case, the biggest issue concerns the family home. The mortgage for the home is in her late husband’s name, even though they bought the house and maintained it together.
Here’s the problem: his children from a previous marriage are legally entitled to half of his assets.
Without a will, battles among family members are common. One purpose of the will is to name an executor (also known as the personal representative) who takes charge of distributing assets, including selling a home, paying off any debts and making sure that final wishes are carried out, as the decedent wanted. Without an executor, the first battle is over who will be in charge. That can take months and delay any resolution to the estate.
If there are minor children and no will, the opportunity to determine who will take care of the children is left to the court. Someone who does not know the family will make a decision to appoint the person who becomes their guardian. It may be someone you would not have wanted to raise your kids.
The will also outlines who gets what possessions from the estate. Family heirlooms and artifacts, like china, jewelry, collections and all kinds of items hold emotional and financial value. Fighting over who gets what, happens often when there’s no will. That takes time to resolve.
Without an estate plan to help manage tax liabilities, there may be taxes that could have been minimized. The cost of attorney’s fees to settle an estate without a will is typically going to be much higher than working with an attorney in the first place to create a will and other important documents.
Another surprise that families run into when there’s no will is that people think the surviving spouse inherits everything. However, this is not always true. Without a will, the state law determines what happens to the estate’s assets. Depending on the state, your spouse may get 50% and your kids may get 50%, or the surviving spouse might get everything. In other states, the surviving spouse receives a third.
The simplest way to avoid the troubles associated with a do-it-yourself will is to make an appointment with an experienced estate planning attorney and have an estate plan created that will protect your surviving spouse and your family. The attorney will also help you prepare for incapacity, with a power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney. This is not a do-it-yourself task.
Reference: News 2 (Jan. 29, 2019) “The power of a will and trouble without one”