April was ‘Make a Will Month’ and is something that shouldn’t be shied away from but how on earth are you supposed to write a will while being joyful?
1. Writing and Signing a Will Document Will Not Kill You
An 1997 University of Guelph study discovered 20 per cent of farmers did not have a will for reasoning, “if I make a will then I will die.” Pretty strange logic if you ask me. Writing a will did not kill my mother at 65, an asthma infection did. During the season of her passing, (she was palliative for two weeks) her new drafted will was not signed, as she was comatose. Even the best laid out transition plans are derailed when new documents are not signed.
2. Is Your Current Will Signed?
After you write a will, you need to make sure it is signed. Is your current copy signed? Do it. Remember to finish off the work you started with your lawyer. It will likely take three visits to the law office. One to draft the will or update your current one. A next visit to talk about the new draft to make sure it meets your intentions. Finally, a third visit to sign the will and take your copy home to read to your family. Ask on the first call to make your appointment what the range of costs is going to be. The more complex your will is, the more expensive, but it is still a worthy investment.
3. Seriously Elaine, Read it to My Family?
This is where the joy part comes in. Most folks I know don’t relish surprises. When you drafted your will you had to choose a trustworthy executor. Hopefully, this is an adult successor or adults in your family circle who are good with details, timely, and accountable for their actions. One of our executors is a lawyer family member plus our successor. In order to get ready to execute a will with timely skill, it helps to know what is in it. Our son knows which law office holds the original will and where the copies are in my office. When people know the plans, you have upon your death, you get to explain your intent as to why you laid out your wishes the way the will states. This is a healthy conversation where you get to talk about your “why” in how you did your will.
4. Eliminate ANY Confusion of Terms
I recently coached a farm family who found an older will years after the father’s passing. This created huge conflict when the family realized that Dad had changed his original intentions. Are folks allowed to change their plans? Yes. The problem is when dead people’s wishes keep fueling the fire of conflict for those beneficiaries who have made financial decisions based on the current reality of the legal will presented.
I am not a lawyer, and this column is not to be taken as legal advice. I leave that good work to my CAFA colleagues who are excellent agricultural lawyers. It is a good idea to destroy old copies of old will documents.
5. Educate Your Executors
Use an executor checklist to get ready to be a great executor. This document from Laura McDougald-Willams is a great starting point. She’s a rural lawyer who believes in getting ready. All lawyers I have met say “No way” to handwritten wills, so take your handwritten wishes to a legal office and have a legal will written up.
6. Watch “Finding Fairness in Farm Transition”
The “Finding Fairness in Farm Transition” video on YouTube. I suspect you feel that writing a will with joy is impossible because you and your spouse are fighting about what to give your children. Firstly, you can draft your own will if your spouse refuses to do theirs. The deceased who dies intestate (without a will) is the one that is going to throw the other spouse into chaos!
I embrace the definition of fairness as “helping everyone be successful.” Ask each of your beneficiaries to tell you what they expect from your estate, and ask “What does fairness look like to you?” Your assets are yours. You get to choose regardless of the expectations of adult beneficiaries.
7. Find Joy in Giving Gifts with a Warm Hand and Tell the Story Behind Them
Don’t forget the heritage gifts from the garden plants. My mother had an amazing lily collection that met sudden death when sprayed with Roundup. I was not asked if I would like to transplant her decades of work to my garden.
I did receive her mink coat five years before her passing, with her blessing, and I wear that coat with great memories of my mom’s love for me. The new Swedish book on “death de-cluttering” says at age 65 we should downsize our stuff as a gift to our children so that they don’t have to wade through it when we pass on. When you write a will, you can add a letter or list of possessions that you wish to go to certain folks. It would be helpful for the executor to have a copy of this list. I asked my family which pieces of art they would like and was surprised that only one piece was valued by my sister, and one by my children. Your treasured stuff might be junk to others!
8. Joy Comes When You Know You Have Enough Money
Outdated wills were made decades ago when interest rates were different and land values much lower. A good financial plan to carry you into your nineties is wise. If you are going to run out of money, check with your beneficiaries and children to see who is going to help you continue to pay bills as you age and require more care. “That was then, and this is now” may be the response to promises you made when finances were flush and bread was under a dollar! Have a conversation being very transparent about your financial concerns with your family, and your financial planner. Remember to support charities if you have the means to do so.