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Will Writing: Have You Lived a Simple Little Life?

What would you do as a lawyer if your client, an astronaut, was in an accident while in space that prevented his return and he called you wanting a will? This was a real question asked on my exam in law school for my Will and Trust class back in the early 1980s. I was reminded of this lately with the death of Carrie Fisher after a heart attack while on a long plane flight. This was really brought home two weeks ago when I received an emotional phone call from a client whose spouse had just been put in hospice care; her question to me was, “what do I do next?” Indeed, what did Carrie Fisher’s daughter, brother and mother do next?

No one likes to have to handle these situations much less think about it. Usually the situations are stressful and emotional, and for obvious reasons one is not operating at a high level of efficiency. It takes some advance planning.

The broad categories you should be considering are:

  1. What are the health care issues and options I have?
  2. What medical and legal paper work do I need to start or finish?
  3. Do I have any personal communication with family and friends I want to make?
  4. What are my financial and insurance issues?
  5. What business arrangements have been or need to be made?
  6. Have funeral arrangements and logistics been taken care of?
  7. What is to be done with my personal effects?

The dean of my law school said during a lecture that as lawyers you will have clients come in and say, “all I want is a simple little Will.” You should then ask them, “have you lived a simple little life?” If you have children, been divorced or own property, you have not lived a simple little life! If the sum of your life can be reduced to a $19.95 “Will in a Box” software program and you believe your spouse deserves to handle any problems that crop up, then you should use that computer program. I have received phone calls and client questions about avoiding the cost and problems of Texas probate by putting everything in a Trust. That may be true in California and New York, where probate is harder than here and where the cost is calculated on a percentage basis of the value of the estate, but Texas has one of the most efficient and least costly probate systems in the nation. My neighbor went the trust route but forgot about a bank account. Oops! The bank would not give him the money without a probate.

What practical questions should you be asking now? Here are a few:

  1. Where is my original will?
  2. Where is the safety deposit key?
  3. Have funeral arrangements been made?
  4. Do I have signatory authority on all bank accounts?
  5. Have the taxes been paid?
  6. Am I on all title documents?
  7. What is the telephone number for my family’s lawyer, accountant and life insurance agent?
  8. Where is a record of the phone password?
  9. Where are the passwords to all online banking and bills?
  10. Who’s going to take care of the dog?

I have learned a lesson that when someone asks me to prepare a will, I make them make an appointment shortly thereafter, otherwise the press of life intrudes and they return when it’s almost too late. I had a doctor friend/client who asked for my will information packet to fill out and said he would call to make a follow-up appointment. He called 11 years later. Much like the scene in the recent movie Deepwater Horizon, when the wife of the rig master pulled out the red notebook of names to call in the case of an emergency, it pays to be organized and to take care of business. Frankly, it is easier on everyone.

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