Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

November 28, 2005  



Having a will makes life easier for survivors

by Thomas F. Coleman

Kay Coleman decided to get a head start on food preparations.  She was going to have many of her children and grandchildren over for dinner on Thanksgiving Day and wanted everything to be just right.

So Kay decided to make her famous carrot pudding a few days early.  But when she looked in her kitchen she noticed that she was one cup short of sugar. 

Although Kay lived alone in her apartment, she only had to wander down the outside hallway to ask a neighbor for the missing ingredient.  Kay was fortunate to be one of many seniors living at Independence Village in Oxford, Michigan.  Although many of them, like Kay, were widowed and therefore lived "alone," they were part of a community of caring and sharing -- considering each other to be friends as well as an extended family of sorts.

Kay soon found her sugar and set everything up on the kitchen counter, ready to begin cooking.  But she apparently stopped short of turning on the stove because she did not feel well.  So Kay walked over to her bedroom and decided to rest.

Kay feel asleep.  She never woke up.

Some of her children found Kay the next day, resting in eternal peace.  They also found that Kay left no mess behind for them to deal with.

Her apartment was clean.  Her funeral arrangements had been made in advance.  And most importantly, Kay had written her Last Will and Testament, naming her executor, beneficiaries, and burial wishes.

Kay was among the minority of people who don't leave their survivors in a state of confusion.  A recent Gallup Poll shows that about 60 percent of Americans do not have a will.

Although having a will is important for everyone of adult age, it is particularly helpful for unmarried people.  Without a will, survivors must struggle to decide:

who is in charge of making decisions for the funeral,
what type of funeral arrangements should be made,
whether to sell personal possessions,
what portion of the estate should be given to surviving relatives.

People cannot use the excuse of cost or legal complexity to justify not making a will.  Some states allow for handwritten wills -- no lawyer is necessary.  Other states have statutory will forms which can be purchased from a stationery store or found online.

California, for example, has a statutory will form which allows people to fill in the blanks, sign it, and have at least two witnesses sign it too.  Many other states also have "fill in the blanks" will forms. 

Some states, like California, also allow for handwritten wills.  It can't get easier than that.

In California, for example, any adult can write out his or her wishes on a blank piece of paper, stating who should be the executor of the will to make sure their wishes are carried out as directed, what type of burial arrangements they want, and what should happen to their worldly possessions, including real estate, stocks, bank accounts, furniture, or personal items.  If it is dated and signed the will is valid.  Although people can visually witness the signing of the handwritten will, if there are witnesses they are not supposed to sign the document in any way under California law.

For those who do not yet have a will, an excellent resource can be found on the website of Nolo Press, a self-help legal publishing company.  The Nolo website explains who can do a "no frills" will and who needs a lawyer to prepare a Living Trust or more elaborate legal documents.

The Nolo site says that hiring a lawyer to create a basic will cost you several hundred dollars, and is usually not necessary. You can use Quicken WillMaker Plus, a software program developed by the lawyers at Nolo, to create a comprehensive, legally sound will for under $40.  Not a bad investment.

So even though most people don't want to think about their own death, or believe that it won't happen anytime soon, in reality "it is later than you think."

Be like Kay, do a little advance planning and don't leave behind a mess for your survivors to clean up.  They will be thankful that you were so considerate.

Kay Coleman was very considerate.  She was also my mother, and a good one at that.

Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.