Without a Will or Trust, the state gets to decide who will get your assets. In addition, the chances of a family fight are drastically increased. Even a basic, handwritten will can go a long way - and there's only a few requirements to make it legally valid. So why do so many Americans put of planning their Estates? Do we fear our own mortality? Do we not care what happens after we die? Do we mistrust attorneys? Do some of us believe our estates are so small an estate plan isn't necessary?
In my experience it's typically a combination of several of these reasons. And, surprisingly, the size of one's estate doesn't necessarily indicate whether or not he or she will do a Will or Trust. As an Trust and Estate attorney I have seen many very wealthy individuals neglect to do an estate plan. I have also seen those with very modest assets plan very diligently.
Particularly notable are the wealthy celebrities who have failed to do a Will or Trust. Let's use them as examples to address the psychology behind putting off our Estate Plans.
1. Fear of our own Mortality
This one is easy to understand. Who wants to think about what happens when they die? Who wants to admit they will die? And how many of us can even fathom the idea of a world where we no longer exist? Our life is our existence, our consciousness is the world we live in. Without our consciousness of the world around us, it seems as if the world would cease to exist. Except that it won't. Our family, our friends, our passions, will continue on without us - and they will likely be subjected to further suffering if we fail to plan for them.
An extreme example of this is rock star Bob Marley, who died from cancer at the young age of 36. Bob Marley was of Rastafarian faith, which is reported to have prohibited him from recognizing his own mortality. People who knew him report this prevented him from creating a will. With $30 million dollars at stake, and millions more in likeness and royalty fees, his heirs have spent over 30 years fighting in court. While most of us prefer not to think about our demise, very few of us do it purposefully or for religious reasons.
2. Don't Care what happens after we die
Why should we care what happens when we die? After all, we won't be there to see it, so what does it matter to us? This is exactly why rapper Snoop Dog has said he doesn't have a will.
"I don’t give a f--- when I’m dead. What am I gonna give a f--- about?" Snoop told Business Insider.
That's certainly one way to think about inheritance. What Snoop fails to mention is how wealthy he would also be making the estate litigation attorneys who represent each of his heirs. I also can't imagine he would like to see his children's relationships ruined over his estate. So perhaps he'll change his mind. For the present, his words certainly make for a more interesting example of why many of us don't do a will or trust.
3. We Mistrust Attorneys
Let's face it - attorneys have gotten a bad rap. Funny jokes, news stories about dishonest lawyers, and high hourly rates all fuel a negative perception of attorneys among many Americans. This reportedly the exact reason Prince never did his estate plan.
People who worked with Prince told TMZ that the singer felt "screwed over" by attorneys and other professionals, which caused him to be "paranoid" about signing anything.
Now I'm not here to try and prove all attorneys are great - after all they're people - and people come in all shapes, sizes, and shades of good and bad. I am here to tell you that a good Estate Planning attorney is worth their weight in gold. If a clearly written, legally executed, and well thought out estate plan prevents a family from dissolving and saves tens of thousands or more in legal fees, than there's no arguing that the money was well spent. Of course there's no guarantees in life, but a solid estate plan is the best insurance once can have when it comes to preserving their assets and their families' relationships.
It's up to you to find a trustworthy estate planning attorney with the necessary education and experience.
4. We believe our estate is too small to warrant an estate plan
I recently had a good friend in his late 60's tell me this about his assets. I love this guy - he's smart, funny, and sincerely devoted to his family. But he's wrong about his estate. Here's where his mistake lies: he and his wife own a large home that has very little equity because of several mortgages that have been taken out. They also have relatively little savings. Ok, so let's take the home first. Should they both die without a will or trust, their four children will have to work out what to do with the home. With a large amount of debt outstanding, the obvious thing to do is sell the house. But this is their childhood home - their parents built this, they lived there for 40 years. With no legal direction to guide them on whether or not to sell the home, the kids could end up in a drawn out, litigated probate. I just spoke to a woman yesterday who was in her 12th year of a probate for just this reason.
On just the issue of the house alone, my friend's four children could spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and see their relationships fragmented. And of course, because the home is not in a trust, it would have to go through probate. And what does probate mean? Probate means more time in court and more attorney fees. And when someone has a relatively small estate - than even more is at risk if there's no will or trust. If fighting occurs, legal fees can decimate the majority of the estate.
5. We Procrastinate
This one is easy! Many of us simply have not done our estate plan because we're procrastinating. There's no looming deadline (that we're aware of), and we probably haven't witnessed any estate planning disasters that prompt us to get started. In this case, I recommend people just get started. Don't tell yourself you have to finish it, or make all the hard decisions today, just call an attorney and set a first appointment. Just take one step forward.
In general, doing your Estate Plan is like buying insurance against your assets and your descendant's happiness. It can't protect against all type of disasters - but you're a lot safer than with nothing at all.
Most of us simply don't understand the ramifications of not doing our estate plan. In the end of course, everyone gets to decide what it is they want to do. In our next segment about psychology and estate planning, I'll discuss what motivates people to do their estate plans.
For more information or questions about estate planning, call my Walnut Creek Estate Planning Law office at 925-322-1795.