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, Adult Children: Control and End-of-Life Issues

The “12 Things Children of Aging Parents Should Know” post, assumes parents feel able to give up some control. It also assumes discussing wills and things pertaining to end of life will help aging parents and their adult children because of the practicality, even if it’s not pleasant.

Part of the aging process involves a lessening of control that’s out of an older person’s control.  But older people can keep a significant amount of control if they make the effort. Thus, not divulging PINs and where bank accounts, valuables etc. are kept may be a matter of not wanting to relinquish control.

For some, discussing anything pertaining to their mortality is off-limits. Period. (No problem. We give a solution at the end of this post.)  But isn’t it interesting that, in an era when so many subjects are freely discussed, end-of-life issues remain awkward–even taboo–for many in both generations.

Our senior advisor, psychiatrist Dr. Bud, explains: “It can be superstition–fear that talking about end-of-life issues can put a hex, cast a spell, or cause something to happen.  Some shun this kind of conversation also because it stirs up fear of death.”

Adult children, not their aging parents, may stonewall attempts to talk about planning for the last stage of life. They don’t want to think about their parents dying. They can be in denial about the predictability of death, resist anything that hints at parents’ death–even to the point that they don’t want to accept a special heirloom-type gift or piece of art that elderly parents want to give their children to enjoy during their lifetime.

To help parents age well throughout the lifespan using the information listed in the “12 Things” post will save caring children time and stress.  If the information is not forthcoming during a parent’s lifetime, however, our senior advisor attorney suggests that parents write a letter, explaining the location of those 12 important things.

The letter’s envelope stating “Not to be opened until my death” should be kept with other important documents. There’s the solution.

Although not as helpful as having the information while parents are living, such a letter will help aging parents ultimately make their children’s lives easier; and will help adult children to better carry out their parents’ wishes.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus some practical and perhaps fun stuff–to help parents age well.

12 Key Pieces of Information Children of Aging Parents Should Have

Pat writes:
Is there a list somewhere of all the important information you should have as your parents age?  Like where they keep their will, where the household papers are, etc. Thanks.
Dear Pat,
The list below highlights 12 important pieces of information children of aging parents should have when trying to help parents age well. Some may be immediately useful; some help in emergencies, and some enable an easier transition at the end of life.
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This list was compiled with the help of my senior advisors including an attorney and 86-year-old Arline, since I know of no existing list. It should save a great deal of stress at critical times when trying to help aging parents.
Specifically children should know:
1.  Where legal documents: power of attorney, health care proxy, living will, and will are kept.  Our senior advisor attorney points out the lawyer–as well as parents– should have these documents. He explains that if parents have used a lawyer who’s in a law firm, that firm should have copies of the documents whether or not the lawyer who drew them up is still there. An individual practicing lawyer may have moved around and could be harder to locate. Then ditto for the documents.
2.  Location of bank account(s)
3.  Location of safety deposit box(es) and key(s)
4. Location of other keys
5.  Hiding place of any valuables
6.  Names/phone #’s,/ fax #’s of significant professionals: attorney, physician(s), financial advisor, parents’ close friends as well as people who help in a variety of ways (ie. cleaning person, companion). Our attorney points out that hospitals, for example, accept faxes of powers of attorney, health care proxies etc., if a scanner is not practical and you don’t bring the document in on your own.
7.  PIN and Passwords in order to communicate with any company that requires them in order to communicate with you (think bills, Medicare).
8.  Where computer passwords are kept
9.  Where checkbook and bills are kept
10. Medication list–up-to-date (Tuesday’s post). Note: a reader e-mailed “A very good idea about laminating your meds.  Every time I go to a doctor’s office, they always ask me for my meds and dosages and I’ll be darned if I can remember….”
11.  Veterinarian (should pet need care or boarding).
12.  Parents’ wishes regarding end of life (funeral, final resting place)
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We can help aging parents and make it easier for ourselves when we have these 12 key pieces of information.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.


The Astors and Us

Media attention is focused on the Astors this weekend: Brooke, the elderly–now deceased–mother, her old adult son, and his adult son…three generations whose current situation might have been astonishing to imagine several decades ago.

Today things we assume to be rock solid or think could never happen, surprise us. I got to thinking about end-of-life issues—about my Dad and I discussing what I needed to know because I was his healthcare proxy (also called healthcare representative). I thought about problems that developed among siblings I know after parents died and the will was read. I wondered if there is a way to reduce that potential for conflict among family members, assuming the family members get along well to begin with.

I spoke with an attorney, a friend who has practiced trust and estate law for many decades and has excellent instincts about family relations. He says it’s better if adult children know certain things ahead of time: for example, who will be trustee or have power of attorney. That prevents second-guessing the rationale after the will is read. He advises parents to bring adult children into the process (assuming they are responsible in the ordinary sense) so they are not “left in the dark.” At the minimum, he suggests that adult children know:

1. who the key advisors are (accountant, banker, casualty and life insurance agent, doctor, lawyer, and stock broker)

2. where the important documents are located.

If this isn’t possible or desirable, adult children should at least know whom to contact. And lastly, ideally adult children should also know if there is a living will and in general what the will provides.

He continued with this idea which I really like: Parents who don’t want to discuss anything with their children ahead of time can write a letter, separate from any formal estate documents, explaining his or her thinking when the will or estate planning was done. It should be kept with other important documents with instructions “Not to be Opened Until My Death.”

To go a step further, I know of instances among my friends, where the mother dies and the father remarries. I imagine you do too. Then the father dies, leaving his adult children’s relationship with the second wife in shambles. The reason: wills that seem (and perhaps are) unfair to the father’s biological children. Could a letter, assuming a direct conversation before his death was too uncomfortable, be helpful?

We talked about second marriages. “Situation that include children from other spouses literally cry out for careful thought and planning, to be carried out by expertly-prepared life and estate-planning documents,” he counseled.

If our parents haven’t discussed anything with us yet, do we have the kind of relationship where we can initiate something? Can we use this post as a springboard for discussion?

Perhaps the above thoughts and information can help avoid some of the pitfalls.