My grandma Elsie was a strong-willed woman who remained in constant control of her life until the day she died. At that point, as do most of us, she lost control. Or did she? From a young woman, my grandmother was a very independent and enterprising woman. Divorced by the age of twenty and the youngest of thirteen siblings, she relocated from Texas to the Washington, DC area where she would find a government job and do all that she had to do to support herself and her two young children. Beginning in the early forties, she would also cook and clean for wealthier white people, make and sell the latest fashions for her friends and co-workers and rent out her spare room to local college students. Over the years she managed to save and inherit a pretty penny. So when she died, she left behind quite a legacy.
Of course, grandma had very clear ideas as to what relatives she ultimately wanted to share in her wealth and whom she did not. As with every family, there was one family member, in particular that she did not want to have the benefit of her hard labor. Unfortunately, even with a grand-daughter for a lawyer, and many a discussion, she was not to be swayed to prepare a Will “before she was ready” because, even at 90 years of age, she stated that “she had time”. Finally, by December, 2009, she declared that she was ready and would have her Will prepared after the New Year. Unfortunately, by King Day, 2010, she was suddenly diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and to make a long story short, she was gone by April… and, as you may guess, with no Will having ever been prepared.
Without a Will grandma died “intestate”, meaning without a Will, and therefore she left behind “heirs”. Heirs are those persons then existing by way of blood or marriage and who would automatically share in her legacy by operation of law, simply because there were no instructions left by way of a Will. As such, it would be the laws of her State of residency that would decide what family members would receive what portion of her estate without any regard for what she may have wanted or the emotional feelings or closeness of any other remaining family members. In fact, in this particular case, her legacy was also shared between three additional grandchildren (heirs) that were discovered just shortly after her death. Had she written a will, however, she would have died “testate” meaning with a will and therefore would have left “legatees”or those that would have been specifically identified and designated by her, to share in her legacy. More importantly, these persons would have shared in the amounts that she would have pre-determined in her will, and with no surprises to the known heirs she had left behind. In addition to family members, her legatees could have included close friends, her church, a favorite charity or alumni association or even a pet. In short, she would have retained control to include or exclude whomever she wished, just by leaving a will.
But wait, did she really lose control? The one family member she did not wish to share in her legacy, suddenly passed away within 30 days of her death. Coincidence? Divine intervention? You decide. And what happened to his share? Well, that’s the subject for another blog post. The point here is while fate worked to her benefit, don’t take chances on who will receive your legacy and how it will be divided up. Think about it and plan on preparing your will, even if you feel like you don’t have much of anything to leave. In the alternative if you already have a will, determine whether or not it needs to be updated due to a life changing event, including a birth, an unexpected death or divorce and don’t forget about the need for a living will, health care directive and power of attorney. Most importantly, when you’re ready, call me. Why? Because you’ll need good counsel!
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