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Will power important in life and death

October 26, 2000

Will power important in life and death



My wake-up call came on U.S. 50, traveling through the Maryland farm country near the town of Wye Mills. My wife and I had been to a very long wedding reception the night before, but were determined to get down to the beach in time to see the sun rise over the Atlantic.

And so after a few hours' sleep, we jumped in the van and headed out. She drove, I dozed and awoke to find we were not on the road but rumbling along in the median strip, which at that point - lucky for us - was wide and grassy.

"I fell asleep," my wife said, as if she couldn't quite believe it. What we'd feared - that we would both die before we had a chance to make out a will - had almost happened, might indeed have happened if the median had tree-filled, like it is on some stretches of that oceanbound road.

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It wasn't as if we hadn't thought about it. I'd even gotten a pamphlet called "Writing Wills in Maryland" from the Local extension service office. But we kept putting it off, because the subject is so unpleasant. And we've all got plenty of time, right? At least until a driver dozes off on a high speed road and everybody ends up with a face full of tree bark, or worse.

How bad could it be to die without a will? To find out, I called the Maryland State Bar Association, which referred me to the publications area of their web site, which has an excellent question-and-answer section on wills and estates, written so that even that average goofs like me can understand it.

The bar association also referred me to Francis Yeatman, of Carlin, Bradshaw, Thomas and Yeatman, a law firm in Bethesda, Md. Yeatman is MSBA's estate and trust counsel for this year, and told me plenty about the pitfalls of leaving my affairs to the whims of fate.

Yeatman told me that without a will, some relative I don't like or trust might become the personal representative of our estate, making financial decisions that could mean my children might inherit far less than they would if some competent professional were in charge.

If I die without a will, Yeatman said, Maryland law says that my wife gets only half the estate. The other half goes to the children, as assets they can receive when they're 18 years old.

"And as you know, getting out of high school is probably not the time to receive a large sum of money," Yeatman said.

"In the run-of-the-mill estate, people want their spouse to be taken care of before the children," Yeatman said, adding that if the surving spouse is 65 or 70 years old, it may take 100 percent of the state's asset for them to survive in some sort of comfort.

Have you got a favorite charity or church that you'd like to remember? Without a will, that can't be done, Yeatman said. Instead, your assets may go instead to distant relatives, or if you have no living kinfolk, state law provides that the assets go to the board of education in the county where you lived.

"Most people would probably not pick that as their charity of choice," yeatman said.

The bottom line, he said, is that by not having a will "you're forfeiting the right and ability to have any say over the estate that you've worked so hard for."

And, he noted, that depending on the size of the estate, without some planning, the estate might get hit with a much bigger tax bite that is necessary.

And yet Yeatman acknowledges that it usually takes more than knowing that this is the right thing to do to get people into a lawyer's office.

"Human beings by nature are procrastinators in many ways. And some other people are not completely sure how they want to do it. And then for ther people, something else, like seeing a family go through a situation where someone dies without a will, is a wake-up call for them," he said.

Yeatman didn't say this, but I will: This isn't just about money. A good friend of mine had an aunt whose set of antique dishes had been passed down for several generations. The expectation was that they would stay in the family. But without a will, they became part of the estate, forcing family members to bid against collectors for them at auction.

In other cases, aging parents may gather the children together and tell them what favored mementoes they'll get once mom and dad gone. But without a will, children who feel like they weren't the favorite - and such emotions come out after a parent dies - may just make off with something they weren't intended to have.

I've heard a ton of stories like this and they usually end with family members vowing they'll never speak to Aunt Suzy again because "she stole momma's teapot."

It's silly stuff really, but so are many of the things that cause human beings emotional pain. If you love your kids, spare them such a scene by writing a will that makes your wishes clear.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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