My eleven year-old son, let’s call him Kid Baseball, plays Little League Baseball. His team, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, steamrolled through the season, and were one of six teams to earn a berth in the round robin finals tournament.
In that typical, beautiful kid fashion, he took it all in stride. I suppose that’s to be expected in a league that talks the talk … it’s a game … these are kids … winning is secondary … the primary purpose is having fun … competing respectfully … learning team play … supporting your mates … relishing the experience.
Under the tutelage of a coach who understood the value of letting kids be kids, and at the same time encouraging them to give it their all, the players morphed into a tightknit group of twelve who had a blast playing the game. Regardless of skill level, support was there, camaraderie was on full display: cheering on each teammates turn at bat, playfully razzing the culprit for missing an easy pop fly, manically bouncing up and down and joyfully shouting while joined in a huddle after each game, win or lose.
As for me, I loved being at the games. Because when I’m watching Kid Baseball lap up life, immersed in an experience bigger than him self, contributing to the joy of others, I can’t help but feel sheer happiness for him, and the other kids and their parents. Moments to treasure? Oh ya, moments to treasure alright.
So there I am at the first game of the finals, leaning on chest high wire fence surrounding the field and looking at Kid Baseball who is supposed to be on his toes playing Right Field but instead is flat footed, gazing skyward, imagining clouds into various shapes and figures.
Taking his cue (like Kid Baseball, like father), my mind sets off for a stroll. And I start thinking how amazing this all is, how fortunate Kid Baseball is to play on a grassy field in his spiffy uniform in a peaceful city in a caring neighborhood with supportive parents who brought this league into existence all for the kids (of course, a valid argument may be made that, vicariously, the kids game is as much for some parents). Talk about a field of dreams. And I thought to myself, I did well, to have a hand in giving Kid Baseball this opportunity.
But before I could dwell too long in self-congratulations, my mind tripped over to another direction, one that parents tend to follow come a certain middle age: what happens to Kid Baseball after I’ve checked out of Planet Earth and into the Great Gig in the Sky?
Who Needs One
The musician, Prince, recently died at age 57 without a Will. Poor financial planning? Yup. And this from a guy likely worth several hundred million dollars with access to any estate experts he wanted. Prince should have known better? Sure, but I’m not here to throw more dirt on a guy who’s prematurely six feet under. The thing is, he didn’t bother. So be it.
Without a will, what happens to his assets? Short answer: assets are distributed to his heirs in accordance with governing laws. Unless stories printed in tabloid media rags of long lost heirs and Martian cousins sporting three eyes are true (aren’t they always?!), the man had two siblings, each of whom will share the estate equally. If other family members existed, the pie would be sliced in different proportions. For example, if he was married at the time of death, then the spouse would inherit the estate. If married with children, then the children would be entitled to a portion as well as the spouse.
So if Prince didn’t have a Will, what’s the problem given that laws specify who gets what when a person dies without a will (known as dying ‘intestate’)? Practically speaking, Prince is now jamming on some celestial cloud so it sure isn’t his problem. But, there could be regret on his part. Regret? asks Prince’s ghost as guitar strumming comes to a screeching halt.
Giving Life To Wishes
A Will would have given life to his wishes, allowing him to shape his legacy, sending assets where he wanted and not where or to whom he did not want assets to go. Think about it:
What if he didn’t want his siblings receiving any assets? Was estranged from one sibling and had no intention of leaving her/him a dime? Wanted to donate all or part of his estate to a charity or two or three? Leave some loot for friends? Fund a foundation supporting music?
All that could have been done with a Will, but not without. And by clearly stating who gets what, a Will potentially prevents legal disputes. Too many families are torn apart because of heirs, or people claiming to be heirs, with big eyes and watering mouths who greedily battle over their right to a bigger slice.
Greed is a sign of emptiness. When empty, one wishes to stuff one self. Money is a way to stuff one self with things. Fulfillment does not come from things. No matter how much money you have, you may remain unfulfilled, your heart and soul may remain empty.
Gifting Assets Without A Will
There is no need to transfer some assets via Will. Real estate may be jointly owned so, upon death of one of the owners, the property is then owned 100% by the surviving owner (known as ‘joint ownership with right of survivorship’). Bank and Investment accounts may also be owned jointly with right of survivorship.
Similarly, life insurance proceeds and retirement accounts may pass to heirs through beneficiary designation forms filed with your financial institution. BIG CRUCIAL NOTE: it’s important to keep these forms up to date. For example, what if you divorced but still list your former spouse as beneficiary on your retirement accounts? Ka-ching! Jackpot for former spouse, who will be smiling on your passing because they will inherit the retirement account assets. Sure, former spouse could be honorable and say, ‘no, no, there must be some mistake, I could not possibly accept this large sum of money.’ Right. Maybe up on cloud nine but not likely among humans living on the third rock from the sun.
The Grip of Avoidance
Some folks can’t do it. The avoidant type. Maybe it’s too disturbing to consider their own mortality. Maybe death is something that happens to other people. Maybe they don’t want to upset someone, a family member, a friend, who assumes they will inherit the estate or a certain grab bag of goodies but the avoidant type has different plans.
Well, that sort of behavior is plain irresponsible, cowardly and selfish. Here, avoidant type is punting potential controversy down the road for others to deal with.
The cost of not properly preparing for death may come not only in the form of higher estate taxes or failure to protect assets but, more importantly, there’s the emotional toll. Rightful heirs who feel wronged; family squabbles, expensive self-serving court fights, all of which would not happen if avoidant type had the kahunas to express his/her wishes in a Will and to let those wishes be known to heirs before death and while still of sound mind. My guess is that avoidant types lose a whole lot of respect from heirs when they flop in the courage department.
How to Write A Will
A Will could be as simple as taking pen to paper, listing who gets what, dating and signing the paper. What’s better is if you have a witness also sign the Will, a person who could vouch for your authentic signature. Another step even better would be to sign the Will in front of a Notary or a Lawyer, people who are officers of the court and whose word as to authenticity of your signature is unlikely to be successfully challenged. Finally, you could retain an Estates Lawyer and spend a few hundred dollars on preparation of a simple Will. It’s a good idea. Because sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and, presumably, a lawyer will discuss with you all the issues you would be wise to consider, including those documents that are typically prepared alongside a Will: power of attorney to handle financial matters should you become incapacitated, and a health care proxy allowing someone to make health care decisions on your behalf.
Who is in your life? Who do you want to gift your assets to after the last page of your life is written? Who do you want managing your finances if you are debilitated by disease or accident? Who should tell doctors to continue or stop treatment when you are unable to advocate for yourself? All weighty issues. All issues that should be well thought out. For your benefit and for your heirs.