Law News and Tips

When is a Will the Right Way?

Fred Vilbig - Thursday, January 21, 2016

I spend a lot of time talking to people about the benefits of trusts. The bottom line is that they avoid probate. As I’ve explained in other articles (columns), probate can be slow, freezing cash and other accounts, so the mortgage, utilities, and other necessary expenses can’t be paid; probate is a public process that can open your private business for general inspection; and probate can be expensive. So why would anyone forgo a trust and only use a will?

There are a few instances when a will is the way. Trusts cost a little more than wills, and for young families, a little added expense can be a large burden. In that case, a will would be far better than to ignore estate planning altogether.

If a young couple with children die without doing any planning, their children’s lives will be caught up in the court system. First, there is the question of who will take care of the children. When working with couples with young children, this may be the most hotly debated (if not contested) issues. She never really liked or trusted his brother, Billy, who is his best buddy. He never really thought much of her sister, Lucy, to whom she is deeply devoted. Even so, I’ve never met a couple who wanted their children to become wards of the state and possibly bounced from home to home. By means of a will, they can name guardians for their children.

In addition, couples don’t really want their assets managed by the probate court, or public administrator. With young families, these assets are typically life insurance proceeds, but they can be substantial. Young children cannot open a bank account; they cannot make investments; they can’t even pay bills. Someone has to be put in charge. Without a will, that would end up being the public administrator and the assets would be in what is called a conservatorship.

Once a conservatorship is set up and the assets are transferred to it, there is the question of how to invest the assets for the good of the children. Most parents would want the assets to be invested for a total maximum return within some conservative limits: nothing very risky – maybe some blue-chip stocks; maybe some bonds.

With a conservatorship, that won’t happen. The assets will be invested in CDs and money market funds; all government insured. Typically, those investments don’t even keep up with inflation. The assets may actually be losing money against inflation.

And then there are expenses. The conservator cannot pay for food, housing, utilities, or anything without a court order, and the court will minimize expenses to conserve assets.

Finally when each child reaches 18, they will get their separate share outright. That rarely seems to be a good idea. Even a relatively small amount to an 18-year-old is a fortune. As I’ve discussed in other articles (columns), too much money too soon can ruin a child. Mercifully, I was saved from that burden.

Parents can avoid the consequences of a conservatorship by having a will. A will allows them to provide for a trust to take care of their children. Until the youngest reaches a certain age, the assets can go into a common trust. Once the youngest has reached the age where they should have completed college, then the common trust assets can be divided and distributed to separate trusts for the benefit of each child. Problem solved.

So one situation where a will might be appropriate (or sufficient) is when a young family needs to do some planning but is on a tight budget. Sometimes a will might be the best planning tool for the elderly as well. In any event, a general power of appointment, and a medical directive should be included in the mix. It would be a very rare instance when no estate planning is the solution. Rather, no planning is first step to problems.

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