You want control over your life, so why not over your death?

I am continually amazed when I learn of a celebrity who died without a Will. For example, most recently, actress Anne Heche is reported not to have a Will. Her 20-year old son is petitioning the court to serve as the administrator of her estate. Prince didn’t have a Will. Jimi Hendrix, Pablo Picasso, Sonny Bono, Barry White, and even Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a Will! These famous people had the resources to have a Will prepared and they certainly appeared to be in control of their lives, so why do they and 64% of American adults not have Wills?

One survey reports most people say they simply haven’t gotten around to making one yet, and some people don’t think that it’s urgent. Others think they don’t have enough assets to warrant a will or they just don’t want to think about their death.

As an attorney who prepares Wills and also litigates estates when people die without a Will, I am aware of the disappointment and turmoil loved ones are left in when someone dies intestate. (Intestate is the legal term for someone who dies without a Will.) The reason for this is because if you die without a Will, the distribution of your assets is pre-determined by law according to degree of relationship. So, too, is the person who manages your estate. You will be prevented from reducing or eliminating inheritance and/or estate taxes, and you will have no control over who inherits your assets, regardless of the amount. Your life savings might even go to strangers, as the following true story reveals.

Irene died at 74 without a Will. She had no children and Ivan, her husband, died 20 years earlier. Ivan had a son, Freddy, from a prior marriage. Freddy lived with Irene and Ivan from the time Freddy was three years old, when his own mother died. Freddy considered Irene his mother, and Irene, although she never legally adopted Freddy, considered him her son and raised him to adulthood. Ivan did very well during his lifetime, leaving an estate worth 2 million dollars to Irene when he died. 20 years later, when Irene died without a Will, Freddy was left with nothing of the fortune his own father had built. Instead, it all went to Irene’s distant cousins, none of whom ever met Irene! Freddy was not one pre-determined in the laws of the state to inherit from Irene.

Every state’s intestacy laws are different. In the above example, Irene died in Illinois, so Illinois law determined how her estate was to be administered. Had she died in New Jersey, the outcome might have been different, because New Jersey allows step children to inherit under intestacy laws. How else could the outcome have been different? Ivan could have set up a trust in his Will instead of leaving everything to Irene. The trust would ensure that Freddy, who was too young to inherit directly from Ivan when Ivan died, would have a share of Ivan’s estate preserved for him until such time that Freddy was old enough to inherit it.

I am certain that Ivan did not intend for Irene’s distant cousins – complete strangers – to inherit his assets, and leave his son with nothing, just as Anne Heche probably didn’t want to burden her barely adult 20-year old with administering her sizeable estate. Not getting around to it is a poor excuse in light of the effects dying without a Will could cause. Proper estate planning puts you in control, whether your assets are modest or considerable.