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Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

By Jackie Jacobs

When a person dies without a valid Will, he or she has died “intestate.”  Despite the many important and emotional benefits derived from having an up-to-date Will, many wealthy, well-educated, and famous people have died without having valid Wills.

The list of those dying intestate must be headed by President Abraham Lincoln. According to Herbert E. Nass’s 1991 book, Wills of the Rich and Famous, Lincoln is joined on the presidential intestacy parade by Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, and Andrew Johnson.  Other well-known persons dying intestate include Lenny Bruce, actor Sal Mineo, actress Jayne Mansfield, and designer Willi Smith.

Songwriter George Gershwin died a very wealthy man, but with no Will. Gershwin’s entire estate was inherited by his mother, Rose Gershwin. Jazz great Duke Ellington was a Will-less widower, and his entire estate passed to his son, Mercer K. Ellington. Glamorous Hollywood pin-up girl Rita Hayworth died without a valid Will. Her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, was appointed administrator of her estate by the New York Surrogate’s Court. Howard Hughes died intestate because none of his thirty purported Wills were deemed to be valid by the Texas, California, or Nevada courts.

The failure to make a Will may be a person’s way of avoiding making binding and immutable decisions involving property, family, and friends, or may be a way of refusing to confront the inevitability of one’s death. We have all heard Ben Franklin’s often-quoted remark about the twin certainties of life – death and taxes. A Will is designed to address both of those unfortunate realities, but it is often unnerving for the person thinking of signing a Will to do so. In the case of perhaps the wealthiest artist who ever lived, Pablo Picasso (Picasso died with an estate estimated to be worth anywhere between $300 million and $1 billion), his failure to have prepared and signed a Will has been attributed to his superstition that signing his Will would hasten his demise.

At some level, we all know that we need a Will.  However, many people don’t think they have enough wealth or property, and they associate having a Will with being rich; some people believe that having life insurance is enough; some think that their spouse automatically will inherit everything, so why write it down?  And finally – most people just keep putting it off until it’s too late.

More than 60% of all Americans die without a Will. Yet it does make a difference – - not just because it determines how your assets are divided but because a “Last Will and Testament” is a statement to your loved ones about things that were important to you during your lifetime. The importance of having a Will is making sure you have the opportunity to make your final statement.

Your Will is the formal, legal instrument that accomplishes the following things:

  • Transfers property to your heirs. Your “property” means everything you own: your house, real estate, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, furniture, jewelry, etc.  And the way to transfer your property after your lifetime – for example, giving an heirloom to your favorite niece – is by spelling it out in your Will.
  • Provides for guardianship of minor children. If you have children who are minors, your Will names the person who will take care of your children and manage their property.
  • Names an executor. The executor is the person who will carry out your Will’s instructions and has the important job of settling your estate. This includes collecting and distributing your assets, paying your bills, resolving legal and tax issues, and protecting the interests of your beneficiaries.
  • You can name a person, bank or trust company as the executor of your Will. Naming a family member or a close friend as executor can save money, but make sure that they feel comfortable managing legal and financial issues. It’s also a good idea to name an alternate executor – a back-up person who can take over in case medical, business or personal matters prevent your primary executor from completing the task.

One of the important elements of a Will is clear, unambiguous language. This may seem obvious, but unclear or confusing language is often the cause for delays in probate (the legal process of verifying your Will through the court system). Specific, detailed language can mean less time and less expense in settling your Will.

You should keep only one signed copy of your Will, either at home or with your attorney (this is to avoid delays, since in many states all signed copes must be accounted for before probate can begin). It may be helpful to have unsigned or photocopies (clearly marked “Copy”) of your Will available for reference.

It’s important that you review your Will at least every two years or every time you experience a significant life change – for example, if you move to a different state or your marital or financial status changes. People forget that a Will is just a snapshot of circumstances at a specific point in time. As time moves on, and circumstances change, you need to change your Will accordingly.

Having a Will means that you control the distribution of your property, maximize its value, and minimize taxes and other expenses.  A Will is important because it’s a formal, legal way to provide for your loved ones and favored charities after you die.

Jackie Jacobs is the Chief Executive Officer of the Columbus Jewish Foundation, the Central Ohio Jewish community’s planned giving and endowment headquarters.

Article appears as originally published in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle, August 14, 2014.

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