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05/13/2016 07:19 am ET Updated May 13, 2016

7 Nasty Things That Can Happen If You Die Without A Will

Death does not always bring out the best in people.
BrianAJackson via Getty Images

About 55 percent of Americans don't have a will, according to LexisNexis. And most of them -- 60 percent -- say it's because they just haven't gotten around to making one. Let's throw in an unwillingness to consider our own mortality and you get the picture.

Blacks (68 percent) and Latinos (74 percent) are less likely to have wills, according to LegalZoom. And it's not just those who can't afford a will or those who are too busy or too cheap to have a will drawn up (there are actually places that will do it for free for seniors). Rich people -- even the ones surrounded all day by lawyers -- die without wills. RIP Prince, whose will is still MIA if it even exists. 

Before you parrot Snoop Dogg, who told an interviewer that he doesn't have a will because "Who cares? I'll be dead," consider these things that will likely occur: 

1. Before your body is cold, someone will ask how much you were worth.

Yes, this may be asked even if you do have a will. It doesn't mean the asking party didn't love you. It may just mean that an unexpected inheritance is regularly seen as a sudden windfall, a solution to a pressing money problem, a relief that the bill collectors will now finally stop calling.

But the asker will nevertheless appear to be tone-deaf with the timing of the question. We all assume that everyone should mourn the way we mourn, but in truth, we all grieve differently. 

If you had a will and everybody knew what share of your estate was theirs to expect, the question might feel less offensive. Without a will, the process will stretch out and be more costly.

Laws pertaining to dying without a will (intestate in legal terms) vary by state. In some states, a surviving spouse can inherit everything (even if this is a third marriage and they were only together a short time). In other states, the surviving spouse will only get one-third to one-half the value of the estate with the rest going to the deceased's parents. If the parents are dead, that portion is split among the deceased's siblings -- yes, including the brother he hasn't spoken to in 30 years and was last known to be living in Alaska. The estate will have to spend money to find said brother (or prove him dead) in order to distribute his share of the estate. The surviving spouse could also wind up being evicted from his or her own home in order to liquidate all the assets and pay all the heirs their shares. 

A will stops all that from happening.

 

2. Children, spouses and ex-spouses, and siblings will fight. And fight. And fight.

Death does not always bring out the best in people. Interestingly, the prospect of pending death is often seen as an occasion to mend fences. But once the death actually occurs, all bets are off and the gloves come on.

This is more likely to happen in families where the heirs have different socio-economic statuses. The son who can't hold a job wants to know why his rich older brother needs yet more money. The rich older brother thinks he should be put in charge of managing the unemployed brother's share of the estate. And so on. But the decision shouldn't be theirs; it's yours.

A will is your way to skirt this squabble. It's your money and you can give whatever amounts you want to whomever you want. End of story.

 

3. Your heirs will fight for a long time, and it will be stupidly expensive.

Because you weren't specific about your wishes, your heirs are free to continually disagree ad nauseam or until the estate goes broke. Your heirs undoubtedly will have conflicting self-interests. Most people die with considerable assets that aren't liquid -- a house, for instance. While a wealthy inheritor can afford to hold on to the house, his less privileged counterpart wants a fast sale for immediate cash in hand.

Your will is your chance to end the argument before it starts. 

When a will is probated, the deceased's property and assets are inventoried and appraised and then, after debts and taxes are paid, the remaining assets are distributed among the chosen heirs. If there is no will, the state directs the property distribution.

Probate involves paperwork and court appearances by lawyers, who charge fees that are paid by the estate -- money that would otherwise go to the people who inherit the deceased person's property. When you draw up your will, your attorney will discuss ways to avoid probate. In many states, probate is not especially expensive or complicated. But the fights over who will administer your estate and be in charge of distributing your assets most certainly are. Plus they can create permanent rifts in the family. You can set that all straight with a will that names an executor of the estate.

 

4. Sentimentality invariably will clash with practicality.

Take the matter of the three-carat diamond engagement ring that has been passed down in your family for several generations; its value is $15,000. Should that be given to your only daughter, so that if she divorces, the ring remains in the family? Or should it be given to one of your sons' wives with the risk that since it was a gift to her, she would get to keep it in a divorce?

It gets even dicier. If you give the ring to your daughter, do you reduce her share of the estate by $15,000? What if she'd rather have the money than the ring? Is she allowed to sell it? Inheritances needn't be equal in a will and a will permits you to pull specific items out of the total estate and give them to whoever you wish. Setting terms, however, isn't that simple. While you can include things like "This is for George, if and when he goes to college," forbidding your daughter from selling the diamond ring probably won't fly since you really can't police things from the grave. 

To some, the ring is priceless. To others, it most certainly has a price. 

By leaving specific instructions as to the sale or preservation of real property, you will be eliminating many of the disputes that could come up. And again, you can only do this in a will.

Families have fought over old vinyl record collections, over who gets to keep the family photo albums, over the partially restored old car that Dad spent hours working on. It still doesn't run, but at least one relative has already been on eBay to see what similar models are fetching.

 

5. Nobody can read your dead mind, which leads to people calling other people "liars."

Did you promise your niece that you would help her pay for her son's college education? And only you and she know that and now you are dead.

Nobody else in the family knows that you've been quietly footing the bill for your granddaughter's fancy private school. It's none of their business when you are alive, but it becomes their business when you are dead.

Need more? You have one adult child who has been your primary caregiver, who left the paid workforce to care for you and in doing so, will have a reduced pension herself and may never be able to find another job that pays her as well as the one she left. You want her to have more of your estate to help her get her life back. Well, if that was your intention, without a will, none of your heirs are going to know about it. In fact, a few of them may even accuse her of skimming off the estate. Did she use your money to pay for the big-screen TV in your room and now thinks it's hers?

It. Gets. Ugly. A will makes your intentions crystal clear. Your heirs may not like all your decisions, but at least they won't hate one another for making them.

6. Your pets may not get the care they deserve or you intended for them.

You cannot leave money or property to your dog or any other pet. You can, however, establish a trust for them and fund it. It requires that you find someone who agrees to provide the care you want for your furry companion. Shelters are filled with pets whose owners died leaving them with no place pre-arranged to live.

While we're at it, if you have minor human children in your care, you need a will to establish their custody. 

7. You may not get the kind of funeral you want.

So you wanted a happy party where friends gather and share funny stories about you? No somber memorials for you, right? Well in that case, it's best to clearly state what you want in both a will and a separate letter that can easily be found upon your death. Because like Prince, sometimes folks can't find the will all that quickly.

 

 

 

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