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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Lenten Task: Write Your Will

Many people give up something for Lent.  Others might approach the season differently: they take on some special task or duty during this time of penance and meditation.  What we present here takes the latter tack; our idea is hardly original, but it’s still important and bears repeating.  We propose that, if you do not have a Will and/or a Health Care Proxy, you take on the crucial lifetime duty of composing these documents.  That surely contributes to a worthy observance of Lent

We’re currently involved as the proposed executor of an estate and we’re learning a great deal almost every day about how the process works in New York State.  Our commentary here is not meant to outline this but to highlight for you a few things that have struck us as surprising.  We also include a few resources that may help.  In addition, some churches and other community groups offer classes in this project, and we urge you to take advantage of these whenever they might take place.

Resources for Writing a Will
Obviously, you can enlist a lawyer to help you write a will.  But for some simple wills, there are other ways.  Some time ago, Debbie Loeb of the Farm’s Hodgepodge page gave some relevant references.  You can see them here:   In particular, she mentions a book published by Nolo; that book is now (2014 edition) titled Quick & Legal Will Book ($24.99).  It includes links to downloadable forms for making a will.  Among Debbie’s other sources, the forms on the site cost $29.95, and the widely advertised services appear to begin at $69.  Clearly there are other books and websites, including Wills and Trusts Kit for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wills and Estates.  While each of those is part of a popular series, they were published in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and with law changes, newer books might be better choices.  Look on and for their full inventories.  While we have a lawyer, we’re also into the Quick & Legal Will Book for ourselves; it – and others, we presume – are careful to explain the conditions under which one should actually consult a lawyer rather than using books or on-line forms.

Even if you already have a will, it perhaps is years old and may well need to be updated.  Indeed, this last point, an old will, is where we started in our current estate venture, with a 35-year-old instrument.  Fortunately, most of it still applies.  But it is the case that the decedent’s father is named as a substitute or “successor” executor, and he passed away 20 years ago.   In addition, the age of this will means that in our local Surrogate’s Court, extra documentation is necessary for authentication.  Witnesses to the will may need to give sworn statements that they know the decedent; in one case, it is the secretary to the lawyer who drew up the will who is furnishing some of this back-up material the Court is requiring.  This court filing process itself could thus be much easier if the will had been kept up to date.  A word to the wise here.

Be sure to keep a will in an accessible place that someone knows about.  While it might sound logical to put it in a safe deposit box, it could then become tricky to get access to it.  We did find out, though, that in New York State, we could get a court order to open a box and inventory the contents; in fact, our laws enable a survivor to do that to look right away for a will, a life insurance policy and a cemetery deed.  And the court order we used was obtained within hours of our requesting it, so if it is needed immediately on someone’s passing, that might be manageable.  In a different example, a friend we knew some years ago simply stashed some of these kinds of papers in a box on the floor of her bedroom closet; the box was labeled “for Ruth”, her niece who would manage affairs upon her passing.  That worked fine in the otherwise tense days right after that woman’s death.

Beneficiaries on Bank Accounts?  In fact . . .
We lately also learned another fact about managing assets and leaving them to people.  Bank accounts and some securities accounts, especially IRA’s, can have beneficiaries.  In this case, the assets go immediately to the beneficiary upon the person’s death.  They do not become part of the estate, so the beneficiary gets use of them right away.  We had long known this about insurance policies, but it’s true for other assets, and in fact in some cases, it is legally required to name a beneficiary.  This is a similar notion to owning real estate “with rights of survivorship”, so the property immediately becomes fully owned by the relevant joint owner.  So visit your bank or securities account manager and arrange for this.  It greatly simplifies the transfer process, and that may help a lot if your survivors need funds before an estate can be settled.

Health-Care Proxy
Another document that’s vital is a Health Care Proxy/Living Will.  In New York State, these are now combined into a single document.  Perhaps they are in your state as well.  The need for this is clear.  If you can’t speak for yourself, how do you let people know if and when it’s all right with you to let you go?  Here’s a Hodgepodge commentary about this issue, actually written by a hospice chaplain:  It’s especially hard to think about these things, particularly in the prime of life.  But doing so can help a lot.  This document, too, needs to be in an accessible place; our own lawyer advised giving copies to, obviously, the proxy person themselves and to the alternate and also to our primary care physician.  Carry a copy in your purse – maybe a man could have one on a flash drive he carries in a pocket? – and tack a copy to your refrigerator door, a place where, we understand, emergency personnel often look.

So, yes, all this is hard to think about.  But you do everyone a favor and give yourself peace of mind if you have an updated will.  And you help everyone around you by outlining your own preferences in case there is a bad time in your life when discussions of life and death are required, and when, by definition, everyone is terribly upset.  Important Lenten observances, these are, indeed.  Good luck with them.

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