By Timothy Barkley. May 2021
You’re standing on a playing field, a ball in your hand, facing a crowd of burly guys running helter-skelter around the field. Some of them seem to be running at you. You weave and dodge. People are yelling and gesturing, and you heft the ball, then throw it where you think it ought to go. Big guys react instantly, violently, and some are thrown to the ground while others run. Spectators cheer, some jeer, and you shake your head, wondering what you just did.
You wake up with a jump, frustrated that you keep having that stress dream from high school. You wish you knew what game you were playing, so you could try to learn and remember the rules.
You remember that this is Saturday, and that you were going to do some research on the Internet to find out how to draft your own will. There are just too many forms online for you to pay a lawyer. Lawyers are just so 1990s!
You find a site that promises that your document will be effective “in all 50 states.” That’s good, you think, because you don’t really want to stay in Maryland forever. Taxes are too high here.
You start selecting options and clicking in boxes. You select “simple will” and type in the name of your kids and your executor. You know your estate can’t be anything complicated. You just have a house and bank account, and a couple of IRAs.
You want everything to go to the kids equally. Except for grandpa’s watch and your guns. The watch goes to your nephew, and your guns go to your niece, who’s always hunted with you. There’s no place to put this, so you save the will on your computer as a word processing file, pull it up, and type in your special distributions under “Distributions” right after the stuff about everything going to your kids.
You print your will, sign it and take it to your neighbor’s house, and they sign it as witnesses. Then you put it in your safe deposit box. Then you die.
Your kids get out the will and find out that they are supposed to split everything equally. The next sentence is your special distribution of grandpa’s watch to your nephew, and after that is the distribution of the guns to your niece. The watch is worth $2,200, and the guns are worth a little bit more.
If the will says “all to my kids in equal shares,” and then says “watch to nephew and guns to niece,” have you just contradicted yourself? Lest you laugh and think no one would do this, someone has. Other people’s kids have brought that will into this office. They were wrestling with whether to give almost $5,000 to their cousins – or just keep the watch and the guns. After all, “all” to my kids sounds a lot like everything, and “everything” includes watches and guns. Did you mean for the watch and guns to go to the nephew and niece now, or only if your kids didn’t survive you? Nobody knows.
Your kids learn that your eldest daughter is a joint owner on all your bank accounts. She informs them that the bank has told her that the surviving joint owner owns the accounts, and she says you told her that’s what you wanted, because she took care of you. She says that the others get nothing. They’re not so sure that’s really what you wanted.
Then your kids find out that the beneficiary on your IRA is still your ex-wife. Because you did your divorce yourself, there’s no agreement that your kids can rely on to demonstrate to the IRA custodian that you intended to change the beneficiary. They won’t make distribution to your kids without a court order. Then your ex tells the kids that she was supposed to have the IRA – that was your agreement.
It’s a mess. Your kids wish that you’d learned the rules of the game before you tried to play quarterback.
You wake up, and realize you fell asleep while working on the DIY will. Was that a nightmare – or did you just see into the future? You decide to call in a coach, a professional at the game who knows the rules for writing wills. It’s cheaper in the long run.
Attorney Tim Barkley
The Tim Barkley Law Offices
One Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1136
Wills & Trusts | Estate Planning | Probates & Estates
Elder Law | Real Estate | Business Planning