When trying to save money, some people choose the minimum when it comes to creating a will. After all, a will’s a will, right? Not so. A thoughtful and complete estate plan will can save relatives months of heartache and expense that results when disputes go to probate court. In fact, many times probate can be completely avoided. In addition to assets, retirement funds, real estate, and valuables like art, jewelry and vehicles, a will needs to cover items of “emotional value.”
Heirlooms and personal items can be distressing for family members to split after a loved-one’s death. Do-It-Yourself and “boilerplate” wills just don’t cover the details that can spare relatives a probate fight later.
“Unfortunately, like divorce, probate can be just as contentious,” expressed White Lake Probate Attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler. “Without a detailed and comprehensive estate plan, family members and courts are left with little direction when determining who gets what.”
Experienced Estate Planning Attorneys, like Wayne-Spindler have seen it all. “I’ve seen relatives fighting for plates and plate holders, chairs and costume jewelry.”
So when it comes to counseling clients during the will-writing process, she knows what questions to ask and which items could potentially result in conflict down the road.
Complete estate plan is not just about the money. It is also about the memories.
Although a lot of probate cases do center around monetary assets, many also focus on the emotional value in items.
This is highlighted by the highly-publicized probate dispute surrounding Robin Williams’ estate. Although most of the asset distribution was determined in the will, there are ongoing discussions. Williams’ three children and Susan Williams have been arguing about a reserve fund and some of Robin’s personal property. “They [the children] accuse Susan Williams of holding on to property that is theirs according to the AP article, “ATTORNEY: ROBIN WILLIAMS’ BIKES ARE AN ISSUE IN ESTATE FIGHT.”
Susan Williams’ attorney, James Wagstaffe, had said after a court hearing in June that Susan Williams wanted to keep items such as her husband’s slippers, T-shirts and some boxer shorts.”
Although it would be unusual for even a thorough will to include such details as boxer shorts, it does highlight the need for frank family discussions at the time of the will’s creation. As a starting place, an experienced estate-planning lawyer can help by providing checklists of common items that sometimes hold emotional attachments.
But sometimes the owner may not have even been aware of the emotional attachment their loved ones had to certain items.
“One client was very thorough in her heirloom distribution list,” Wayne-Spindler remembered. “When I asked why, she said she remembered when her grandmother died there were hard feelings about an automated card shuffler.”
It turns out the grandkids had fond memories of playing cards at grandma’s house and all wanted the shuffler to remind them of the fun times with her. It didn’t come to a probate war, but this client wanted to spare her relatives the discomfort of having to argue through the sorrow of loss after her death.
Although it can be uncomfortable to bring up the topic of loved ones dying, it can also be heartwarming to hear the emotional significance behind household items. It’s a chance to relive fond memories.
One common solution to the awkwardness of bringing up the topic of a relative’s death is the color-coded sticker system. It gets people talking. Each loved one gets a few stickers in their assigned color. They take turns touring the house and placing their stickers on the items they hope to be awarded in the will. Sometimes, the results can be surprising. In the instance of two people choosing the same item, the owner has the chance to hear from relatives about why certain items are important to them. The owner then has a decision to make about who gets it. The benefit is, by deciding before death, there is the chance to express the reasoning behind the decision and propose compromises.
Fair vs. Even
As we all know, each parent probably only has one wedding ring. When more than one person desires this commonly emotionally-charged item, the probate war after death can be heated, protracted, and expensive. Often the courts have to ignore the arguments of who “earned” an item or who “wants it more” and defer to economic value to divide things evenly. For many families this results in a feeling of dissatisfaction by all parties. But that’s what happens when it gets left up to a judge to decide because of an incomplete or vague will.
Where a complete estate plan is so successful is that it provides a “fair” distribution of heirloom goods based on the owner’s assessment of factors like: Who has a deeper emotional attachment? Who will actually use an item and enjoy it? Who “needs” the item?
In the instance of one family with five grandchildren, the grandparents decided on certain items based on the kids’ interests and lifestyles. And even though the items were not equal in monetary value, the children were satisfied because they got to hear the grandparents’ thought process as they created the will. The stories behind how an item was selected further increased their emotional attachment to it. For instance, the caterer got a set of copper pots. The photographer got grandma’s camera that she used in the war. The soldier got grandpa’s medals. The history teacher got the family archives and photo albums. And the athlete got the varsity football sweater. Knowing that each item was specially selected based on personal insight, made it “fair but not even.”
Visiting with an experienced estate planning attorney can give you a good start to have the discussions that make for a complete and comforting will. As you go through life, occasionally revisit your attorney for updates to the will as your family changes with addition of children or grandchildren, starting a new business, retiring, or the death of other loved ones.
For more information about creating a complete estate plan, contact experienced estate planning attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler at 248-685-8888. The office of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates is located in Milford, Michigan and the lawyers practice throughout the five counties of Southeastern Michigan including Oakland, Wayne, Livingston, Genesee and Washtenaw.
Written and Posted by Christine Donlon Long Communications’ Specialist for Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates