As a trusts and estates lawyer, I spent much of my time for over a decade as an estate administrator, tidily wrapping-up human life on retainer for heirs of estates. Some estates were small, consisting of a checking account and a few outstanding debts, while some were larger than life requiring appraisals of lavish homes, jewels, paintings, boats and rare collections. Regardless of the size of the estate, there was one common theme: People are particularly persnickety about personal property, and rich or poor, our stuff means a lot to us. While wealthier individuals are more likely to have extensive estate planning documents in place, it's imperative across the board, as fights over tangible personal property often erupt for reasons other than monetary value.
Here are three simple pieces of advice that can prevent a lot of future aggravation:
1. Be proactive about estate planning for the sake of your children. A combination of procrastination, frugality and ignorance often get in the way of proper estate planning, resulting in a costly mess after death. Let's face it, talking about death is morbid, but isn't it better than the alternative of leaving your family with a mess on their hands? At least that's how I viewed it until I met my first overly concerned and borderline-obsessive client. His sizable life insurance policy was his only significant asset. He was young and had a family. I couldn't understand his obsession with the policy and its beneficiary designation forms. Shockingly I got it about a year later when he jumped to his death from his mother's 10th floor apartment window. The doorman found him on the sidewalk and I found myself heartbroken and researching whether his policy would pan out. I somehow felt complicit because I unwittingly helped with his plan. My only (and difficult to muster) consolation was that he made sure his family was taken care of.
2. Be fiscally conservative and plan for after death expenses. On a small scale, planning for after death expenses such as funeral and burial costs alleviates a strain on the family during an already difficult time. On a grand scale, I still cringe recalling the larger-than-life Long Island dad who showered his wife with jewels and furs, and his kids with German cars upon graduation from high school (Doesn't every 18-year-old need a convertible Mercedes?). His extravagant lifestyle included an enormous home with manicured grounds, exotic vacations, and a no-expense-spared attitude. When he arrived in my office he shared that he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and that his savings were meager and insufficient to support his wife, who hadn't worked in years. He didn't save for a rainy day and he knew that it was about to pour. I couldn't print money for his family during their time of need, but I was able to ascertain his wishes and help his wife plan for the future. If only he had come in sooner...
3. Be clear on your wishes regarding personal property. State laws differ on the disposition of personal property, but generally one thing remains the same: People are attached to their stuff. I was astounded the first time I witnessed family members bicker obnoxiously over what I perceived as junk, which was not specifically disposed of via instructions from the decedent. Draft a clear-cut list people! This is your chance to speak from the grave and save your kids from irreparable conflict. As a rookie attorney I couldn't understand how grown women in their 50s could be that adamant and vicious when dividing up their mother's old clothes, ancient dishes and musty bedding. While sometimes this behavior can be attributed to sweet sentimentality, these three evil sisters were all about revenge. While their mother was physically and mentally incapacitated and laid up in a nursing home, the middle sister slept with her older sister's husband repeatedly -- not that a one-timer would've been okay. Meanwhile the youngest sister hated them both and suffered from debilitating mental health issues. Planning well ahead of age and impairment would've saved this family a lot of trouble.
I'm several states and more than 10 years removed from these stories and the practice of trusts and estates, but I still feel strongly about proactive planning for the sake of everyone involved. Estate planning is costly; however, it's a small price to pay for family peace and sanity in the future.