Dying without a will is hell for surviving relatives

Various studies show that most adults have not prepared a legal will.

Whenever I give a talk about estate planning, I ask the audience to guess the percentage of Americans who do not have a will.

Most people guess in the 90% range.

It’s a trick question.

Various studies show that most adults have not prepared a legal will. But the point I’m really trying to make is that everyone has a will in a way — just not one that they have executed.

If you die “intestate,” meaning you don’t have a legal will, state laws determine how your assets will be distributed to your heirs.

You hear all the time about wealthy celebrities dying without a will. The most recent was Aretha Franklin, who died last year.

Franklin had three handwritten wills, one left under a couch cushion. The artist’s failure to do proper estate planning has left a legacy of discord. Her children — four sons — are in a heated court battle. Things have gotten so bad that a judge put the estate’s administration under court supervision.

But if you think this just happens with the rich and famous, you need to talk to Rhonda Green.

Green knows all too well what happens when individuals fail to plan for their death, and I’m not talking just about leaving instructions on the distribution of assets. She’s been the eyewitness to fights over funeral arrangements.

Green is the funeral services manager at my place of worship, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland. It’s her full-time job, and there’s no cost to the families she assists in planning the funerals of their loved ones.

Green can tell you some stories. Here’s just a glimpse of what’s she’s seen:

— A woman, with no will, died with four adult children. Two of them wanted to cremate their mother to save money. The other two wanted to honor their mother’s wishes for a burial. They ended up in court, where it was discovered that the mother had purchased a cemetery plot for herself. She received her burial, but the conflict left the children divided.

— An older man passed away, leaving a $125,000 life insurance policy to his much younger girlfriend of two years. His adult children had no idea she was the sole beneficiary. The girlfriend, as was her right, refused to use any of the insurance proceeds to pay for the funeral or burial. The man’s children had to come up with the money themselves. When the girlfriend tried to attend the funeral, the police were called.

But here’s a tale that should send you straight to an attorney’s office to draw up a will of your own:

A man died and his current wife didn’t want his children or their mother (his ex-wife) to have anything to do with planning the funeral service. Well, it turned out that the husband had never taken his ex-wife’s name off the house, nor had he removed her as the beneficiary of his insurance policy. The ex got everything. To her credit, the former wife did pay for the funeral and burial, but she reclaimed the house that was rightfully hers. The widow had to go live with her mother.

After having to act as a mediator for warring family members, Green developed a guide to encourage people to plan for their death. This document turned into a book, “My Exit Plan: Getting My House in Order.” It’s the Color of Money Book Club pick for this month. You can order it at rhondagreen.org or on Amazon.

This self-published book is impactful largely because of Green’s experience at the frontlines of family disputes and dysfunctions. You can’t help but shake your head reading about a wife trying to snatch the microphone from her dead husband’s two stepdaughters during his funeral service. A forgotten will gave the stepdaughters some justice.

Green is careful to protect people’s privacy, but the drama she chronicles should be the needed push that gets you to do some estate planning.

The book covers the basics, and there’s a companion workbook where folks can list important information, such as the location of a will or insurance policy. But Green’s ultimate goal is to motivate you to act — and now.

Recently Green coordinated an exit plan symposium at our church that drew about 1,300 people.

“If you really love your family, then put your wishes in writing and make it legal,” she said during the symposium.

You will die. Don’t exit leaving a hot mess behind.

As one symposium attendee testified: “There’s no drama in the universe like death drama.”

I’m hosting an online chat about the “My Exit Plan” at noon Eastern on Oct. 30 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Green will join me to answer questions about getting your own house in order.

— Washington Post Writers Group

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