Intimations of mortality
Four books on estate planning
A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair. – MACHIAVELLI
When you are going to be drowned you can think of nothing but how they will be puzzled at home when you don’t turn up for tea, or what will happen because you haven’t made your will. – GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
Let us now contemplate death, inheritances, last testaments, heirs and assigns. Grim business, this — so grim that it tends to be dealt with in terms of wry humor, witness Machiavelli and Shaw, or bitterness, like King Lear’s after he had made an utter mess of his estate: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
More often, it tends to be dealt with not at all; 70% of Americans die without a will, intestate. The very word carries overtones of castration, and impotence is its nature. While the victim lies helplessly dead, the law takes control of his worldly goods, disposing of them in ways he may never have dreamed of. To a lesser extent, a similar fate can await the write-it-yourself type who has spent a rainy afternoon with a copy of Holograph Wills Made Easy. As New York Judge Roy M. Page opined in the Matter of Douglas (1949), “In some instances, homemade pies are superior. Wills never.”
The authors of the first three books listed at right convey a common message: don’t throw your money away. At the same time, they warn against the kind of obsessive probate phobia that has sent Norman Dacey’s How to Avoid Probate! into its 40th printing (910,000 copies, at $4.95 each. ! indeed).
Dacey devotees must rip legal forms from his book, struggle through complicated instructions and risk getting it all wrong. Sample: “Note next that the instrument specifies that your children are to receive ‘in equal shares, or the survivor of them, per stirpes.’ Now, think carefully: If it is your wish that if one of your children does not survive you, his share will revert to his children in equal shares, cross out ‘or the survivor of them’ and initial it. If that is not what you want—if, for example, you prefer that the share of your deceased child be divided among your surviving children, cross out ‘per stirpes’ and initial it…”..
This is the sort of thing that has given dying a bad name. By contrast, the approach suggested by Barnes, Ziegler, Flaherty and Dowd contains an inner logic that is difficult to deny. First, add up what you have (the article and form on pages 78 and 79 of this issue will help). Second, decide what you want to accomplish with your estate. Third, consult an expert estate planner. You can find one through your bank or through a Bar Association referral service. Next to getting started in the first place, this is probably the hardest step of all. It is also the one most likely to founder on a shoal of nervous questions. Suppose my estate plans are embarrassingly unrealistic? Chances are they won’t be, and even if they are, the time to find out is before you die, not after. Isn’t estate planning expensive? No. Lawyers earn their money handling estates, not planning them; a simple will can cost as little as $25, and even one that establishes a trust or two will probably not cost more than $150 or $200.
Consider the fate of the non-planner — the pseudonymous Mr. Billings, for example, cited in Estate Planning for wives. Billings, a resident of Montana, died one night in an auto accident. He had no will, so state law divided his $80,000 estate: one-third to Mrs. Billings, two-thirds to the three children. Mrs. Billings needed a court order to sell the house and had to post bonds and pay legal fees every time she applied for funds. Eventually, more than $20,000 was spent on legal fees and other expenses. Mrs. Billings’ experience was unquestionably extreme. Better management could probably have cut her costs by at least one-third.
In the contrasting case of a pair of right-thinking “young marrieds” outlined in Estate Planning for Everyone, a lawyer has drawn matching wills and created a contingent trust to assure the children a maximum future at minimum cost. A more sophisticated lesson lies in another sample estate plan, this one for a “young executive.” The young executive, it is plain to see, is actually Mr. Young Married, 15 successful years later. His estate has grown to $140,000, and the earlier contingent trust is insufficient to provide optimum protection and tax savings. Instead, the revised plan calls for a series of three more-specialized trusts. The savings in taxes alone: $14,000.
Written by experts, the three non- do-it-yourself books have the ring of authority. Estate Planning for Wives is slightly overdramatized, and a tree or two could have been saved in its production by eliminating a redundant introductory chapterful of definitions and previews of coming topics; but compensation awaits in a fascinating section on con artists who bedazzle vulnerable widows with an array of fast shuffles and gyps ranging from the Pigeon Drop to the Model-Home Pitch.
In how-to books it is unrealistic to hope for stylistic flair beyond Early American Nuts and Bolts, but a reader at least has the right to expect that the nuts and bolts will come out even. It is mildly dismaying, therefore, to read in Chapter I of Who Will Get Your Money? that samples of newspaper notices required by probate courts “are reproduced at the end of this chapter” — and then to discover that they are not.
Minor quibbles, both. The important thing is that the books are as good as they are and may spur a reader to plan for mortality. If any book — or this review, for that matter — can accomplish that, the savings for even a middle-income family can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. — Peter Bird Martin