Aging Parents: Possessions, Money, Handwritten Wills part 2

We read about high net-worth people’s contested wills, be it the Astors, or other wealthy people. Indeed, just last month one of these high-profile contested cases, a will contested by two daughters, made the British press. But whether it’s high net-worth people, or modest-income people, family fractures are too often the norm.

If we want our money and possessions to go to specific people or organizations after we die, or our parents want certain people or organizations to inherit specific amounts of money or certain possessions, a well-thought-out and well-written will is the best chance to make this happen, regardless of one’s net worth. Did you know a large per cent of the population dies without having a will? (Information from Sr. Advisor, trusts and estates attorney RHW, Esq.) Did you know a will can be handwritten and legally valid?

This kind of will is called a holographic will. Some call them “emergency wills” but they need not be written under emergency conditions. They can be written because people don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of using a lawyer.

That said, in an emergency, when time is of the essence and the client has no will, RHW Esq., often won’t let that person leave the office without making a handwritten (holographic) will on the spot. In all cases these wills are handwritten by the testator (the maker of the will).

While RHW, Esq. tells us “a handwritten will is the most respected in the legal profession,” there are a few necessary components for it to be valid:
1.  It needs to be signed.
2.  It needs to be dated

It also–
3.  should contain the following sentence: “I appoint……… serve as executor without bond.”

4.  a copy must be sent to the executor (also called personal representative).

It should be written on a blank piece of paper and preferably in blue ink. Reason for the blue ink: It’s often hard to tell black ink from a copy and will incur legal fees to validate after the testator has died.

Having the will signed by one or two witnesses is not a requirement in many states, but may make validation easier.

A holographic will costs nothing. What it does take is thinking about how a person wants his or her assets to be distributed after death. Without a will, the law of the state is in effect and assets may not be given as the deceased would have wanted. Check  links below for details (i.e. states that accept holographic wills, potential problems to be aware of–like ambiguities.)

A holographic will, if done properly, works for those with limited funds, those averse to using a lawyer, and those whose death seems imminent. Handwritten wills are legal. Clearly they’re a better option than letters saying so-and-so should get Aunt Millie’s tea-pot, which may not have any more validity than a parent’s verbal promise.

In an ideal world, before serious aging issues set in, RHW, Esq. prefers clients discuss their wills with adult children. Yet this is not necessarily what parents want to do–or what children want to hear about. In these cases he suggests parents prepare and sign a letter stating their rationale for who inherits what. This letter should be kept with important papers, in an envelope with “Not to Be Opened Until My Death” written on the envelope. This kind of letter appears to be relevant in the contested will case cited at the beginning of this post. (The boyfriend was willed more than the daughters.)

The will has the power to leave people happy or distressed. As we try to help parents age well–and avoid family strife after they’re gone–the holographic will could be the answer.

Is a Handwritten Will Legally Valid?

Model for holographic wills  Note: this site also lists the states where holographic wills are not accepted.

This site makes us aware of problems that a handwritten will could easily encounter—-as does this site. Google “holographic wills” for additional specifics.

Aging Parents: Their Possessions, Their Money– Now and After Death

What is it that fractures families after parents die?
Reducing the risk


 When I was around 21 years of age, I remember going to the new home of my boyfriend’s friend, Pete. Pete lived at home with his mother–a somewhat zany, delightful, divorced, Aunty-Mame-type. I’ll always remember entering that home (she wasn’t there). Her son laughingly pointed out the little notes with her children’s names affixed to the back of her paintings and other valued possessions.

After 3 divorces and three children from two fathers–in retrospect–wasn’t she  smart about making her final wishes known–at least for these important possessions? Who was to inherit what, was no secret. But this is unusual.

*              *            *
Emotional Attachments

More common is the emotional attachment adult children have to certain items that parents may–or may not–be aware of. And, of course, there are “different strokes for different folks.”

–Aunt Millie’s tea-pot. I remember a colleague’s concern that a tea-pot that had been passed down in the family not go to her brother, but rather to one specific daughter of her brother. She was adamant. It was in her will.

–On the other hand I was given my grandmother’s engagement ring and have no idea whether family members were aware of it. As a little girl I played “dress up” with any jewelry (valuable or not) I could find in a jewelry box. I could be in my pajamas adorned with jewelry–clothes didn’t matter. I’m guessing my grandmother knew I loved jewelry.

–Yet my brother and I were directed to share all of our parents’ possessions and/or proceeds from their sale. We didn’t like the same things. That worked well for us.

Is it crass for children to mention things they hope to inherit from aging parents?

Talking about and even thinking about death is uncomfortable for many parents and their adult children. That said: If it’s a comfortable conversation–meaning if we feel comfortable talking about loving a parent’s possession–being proactive is fine. Chances are we’ll express this well and the conversation will go well. It’s when we aren’t comfortable talking about something that our chance for success plummets and we need to try some other way or leave things to chance.

Sr. Advisor RHW, Esq., still-practicing trusts and estates attorney, advises his clients who don’t want to have end-of-life conversations with their children to put their intentions in writing (specifics in next post). Here’s the flip-side:

Explain about our love of/desire for a certain object in a handwritten note. Some of us express ourselves better in writing. Also important is getting the note to parents at an appropriate time; clearly we don’t want to wait until the last-minute when a parent is no longer “with it” or when it would be considered an insensitive time.

Other option: Do nothing.

Next post: THE MONEY  While acrimony caused by monetary wealth can be a media event when it concerns people of high net worth, many ordinary families face the same nastiness. We  just don’t hear about it.






Aging Parents, Money, and Siblings: Thinking Ahead

They say “Money is the root of all evil.”
(I won’t go there.)

What we do know–is that bad feelings among siblings, because of money, are common after parents have died, especially if the siblings have been kept in the dark about their inheritance. From Great-grandmother’s sugar bowl, to thousands–even untold millions of dollars (think: the Astors), families quarrel over money.

But that’s after death. What about before–when everyone is still alive and functioning?

Two recent conversations convince me that this subject is still alive and problematic.

The first is a casual conversation at lunch, when someone talked critically about childrens’ not doing all they could for an old parent because they didn’t want all her money spent on her care. They wanted to save some for themselves.

The second is a recent conversation with a friend–one of four children. His mother, after lengthly hospitalization for significant problems several years ago, was ultimately admitted to an assisted living facility. Her apartment was put up for sale by the 2 siblings previously designated her health care proxies.

All 4 siblings agreed about selling the apartment, but not about the sale price. Emotions surfaced; siblings took sides. A bad housing market plus dated apartment generated no viable offers, even after several  price reductions and a change of brokers. Meanwhile their mother’s money was going towards her assisted living and maintenance on her for-sale apartment.

Now it looks like a sale will go through–at a price way below the original. Although resolved to selling it, 20/20 hindsight reignites the discord that has tainted relationships since this began. The apartment’s expenses will be gone. Relationship damage probably won’t be.

Which brings back thoughts from decades ago when Mother and her brother were deciding on a nursing home for my grandmother, who’d suffered a bad stroke. Mother had selected the best place in town; my uncle wanted the less expensive place. Mother wouldn’t consider it. I’d never seen Mother so upset–she rarely got upset. As I recall, Dad said he’d make up the cost difference. My grandmother went to the costlier place. Fortunately Dad could do that.

Dad–mediator, negotiator, fixer-upper–as usual was trying to “fix” things, which included an explanation to me. Of course 13-year-olds think simple: It was Nana’s money.  Why not use it for the best place? Isn’t that what it’s for?

I learned that Dad placed great valued on family. He came from a very poor family (so poor they used the Sears-Roebuck catalog pages for toilet paper in their outhouse).  He felt family should stick together which included feeling duty and responsibility to his parents, and maintaining a good relationship with brothers and sisters (regardless of how anyone felt about their spouses).

The rationale for making up the cost difference makes sense when adult children think like Dad, have enough money, or one sibling has more and is willing to do more than his or her share. On the other hand, when adult children–who are given control of their parents finances–are needy, irrational, or jealous, preserving their future inheritance can become a higher priority than helping their parents age as well.

It brings up the question: How can parents ensure they’ll get the best available care and that their children won’t be “at each other’s throats” debating how their parents’ money is spent–when parents can no longer be in charge?

I put this question to Sr. Advisor, RHW, Esq. who confirms this is a common problem. He promises to offer us an opinion later this week, when he’s able to devote time and serious thought.  He did say, however, you can never know how much trouble adult children’s spouses will cause when they “stick their nose” in the family’s business.  We await elaboration.

Aging Parents: Discussing End-of-Life Issues

Discussing end-of-life issues with aging parents is uncomfortable for so many. Several previous posts discuss this, focusing on various aspects. For example, “Aging Parents, Adult Children: Control and End-of-Life Issues” (9/10/10) points out some of the reasons these discussions don’t happen:

1. Denial on the part of parents and children (note: denial is an unconscious mechanism that keeps us from dealing with something until we are ready)
2. consciously not wanting to face the inevitable
3. superstition (if we talk about it, it may happen)
4. keeping children clueless (maintains parental control).

Dad was in his mid-80’s. We needed to have this kind of conversation which I had thought about for quite a while. The question was how to begin. I don’t remember exactly how I ultimately broached the subject, but after Mother began having tia’s I managed to do it.

Fortunately the Wall Street Journal has just paved the way for such a discussion in an article aimed at older people, The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die (July 2, 2011). (Children in their 50’s are used in the examples.) It is helpful, excellent information for aging parents. And therein lies our opportunity–or at least step one.

Our senior advisor, RHW, Esq., reviewed the article, thought it was very well done and offered one addition.  The article lists will, revocable trust, and “letter of instruction” as “The Essentials.” While the Durable Financial Power of Attorney is mentioned as an “also” in the essentials paragraph, it is not an “also” in his opinion.

He emphasizes “more than anything else the Durable Financial Power of Attorney can prevent the courts from having to appoint a guardian or conservator–an expensive and often cumbersome procedure.” It is essential in giving parents control over who has this financial power and should be a 4th “essential.”  You could mention this to parents for starters–or not.

A discussion about wills etc. needn’t take place the moment we hand parents the WSJ article or (if they’re WSJ subscribers) ask them if they’ve read it. We’ll can feel confident however, that after reading it, they’ll have good information at their fingertips.

Updated: And if the above isn’t enough, click this worthwhile UTube presentation taken from the American Bar Association website:

Isn’t helping parents get their affairs in order a part of helping parents age well? ……And we’ll also know we’ve opened the door for future discussions.