Estate Settlement: Reading the Will Is Not What You Expect

Big life experiences: If you haven't been through them, I wrote earlier, then images from movies and TV will shape your expectations and may leave you confused. No, you (or your partner) won't give birth on an elevator or in the backseat of Brooklyn taxi accompanied by a witty but kindhearted cabbie.

And, chances are, in estate settlement, you won't experience scenes like the two pop-culture references that came to my mind in younger years:

    • Jane Eyre (or anyone in pretty much any novel or movie ever) surprised by a long-lost relative leaving her a fortune.

 

  • Christina Crawford in the camp classic “Mommie Dearest,” shock frozen on her face as she learns, from mother Joan's will, that she's been completely disinherited.

Yes, I'm female. Still, no matter your gender, chances are you can picture your own television or movie scenes, grieving family crowded into a wood-paneled office, either satisfied or shocked by what they're hearing. (In a soap opera, this is usually where the never-acknowledged son or daughter comes out of the woodwork.)

Last message from Dad
As I described earlier, the first communication I received from the attorneys representing the trust was a legal document I was expected to sign — but didn't. After my siblings and I returned the forms, we received an email from the firm's representative, introducing himself and expressing sympathy for our loss.

A few weeks later, I got a large envelope in the mail with a copy of the will. (For those who commented on this after the previous piece: No, it didn't arrive immediately, and we had to pointedly ask for it to find out when to expect it.) I took one look at the envelope, set it carefully on the table and made dinner for my little boy. After he was in bed, I poured a glass of wine, gritted my teeth and finally started reading at the dining table.

No wood-paneled office, no gasps of surprise … but still one of the weirder experiences of my life. It felt like hearing my dad's voice, but filtered through a cold interpreter who only has an outdated grasp of English — a more severe Shakespeare.

Everyone has a “crumpled second page”
Setting aside movie comparisons, one of the issues most families will struggle with is secrecy — for many reasons, children don't want to talk to parents about money. I discovered in the early weeks of this process that my siblings and I had different levels of understanding about Dad's plans, and that my older siblings, who knew more, were still hamstrung by out-of-date information — plans Dad made that later changed or just vague descriptions of assets that are now proving difficult to track down.

One conversation with the attorneys turned up a “crumpled second page” of a life insurance policy, creating a need for legal detective work. (If you looked in your filing cabinet now, do you think you'd have something equivalent to a crumpled second page of something? I know I would. Dave Ramsey writes about organizing documents for your loved ones in a Legacy Drawer.)

Plan A: “Don't die”
I can understand why the secrecy — or at least reluctance to have the conversation — happens. I created a will after my son was born, making the big choice, among others, about who would get custody of my son in the event of my passing. These are choices I don't necessarily want to have to explain or defend to anyone not named in my plans.

I'm also hoping it's all moot and we never have to implement “Plan B.” (As I always say, “Plan A is ‘Don't die.'”)

We also, of course, don't want to think about dying (see “Plan A”), and we certainly don't want to suggest to our older relatives that we think about their ends. It's an awkward conversation to have. I will join the chorus of voices advising you to have the conversation about estate planning, no matter how awkward.

The big reveal
You can understand why I won't go into details about what my dad had or what he left; I know J.D. has worked through his own issues about what to share and not share publicly, and I have my own privacy as well as my family's to consider and respect.

I ended up reading through the multiple estate documents once that night — and again the next day. Just like with Shakespeare, eventually I got it. And what the paperwork left me with was a sense that Dad had done a Herculean job of being equitable — to his wife (our stepmother), my three siblings and me. He was pretty smart with his money throughout his adult life, and he was smart with it at his passing.

It was also, strangely, sweet. While some assets exist in the trust, certain items are to be disbursed through the will — special coins he purchased (one for each child, of course), a car, a boat … and two electric bicycles. I remember hearing about the coins from my stepmother, and the bicycles, which he was quite proud of, from my dad.

The will, though, only answered a few questions, and three months later, we're still looking for all the answers.

…to be concluded…

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Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager
Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager
8 years ago

Interesting comment about the older siblings knowing more. Make sense when kids are younger, but when everyone is an adult, why not be open and honest about everything to everyone?

getagrip
getagrip
8 years ago

I think in many cases the older siblings are the ones who tend to have more of the parents trust. In a way they generally gave older siblings more responsibility to “watch” their younger siblings, do a lionshare of chores, etc. In addition the older sibling often carries more implied authority than the younger ones (i.e. they are the ones the parents likely put in charge of the family when they are not present), so there is less likely to be bickering (or the parent making the will may feel like that should be the case). Also, dependant on the… Read more »

Kristin S
Kristin S
8 years ago

It could be because they asked…I know I’m the only sibling in my family who has straightforwardly asked my parents what they are planning to do, and had suggestions as to what they could do differently. My Mom is pretty open about things, but my Dad tends to change his mind and not tell her – which can lead to difficulties, unless you expect it.

Stephen
Stephen
8 years ago

I read these articles and frankly I don’t want to read more on the subject. But yet, death is one of those certain things in life, and really we should be more prepared.

Actually one for JD (or others who don’t plan on having kids), how do you plan for that quiet day?

amber
amber
8 years ago

ugh! Are you kidding me! She expects us to read a Part III to get to the end of her story??!!! So frustrated with this. Brevity is the soul of wit my friend.

d
d
8 years ago

The post is titled, “Reading the will is not what you expect” and the last paragraph is titled “The big reveal” and then…nothing happened. The writer is not sharing what the will says and implies that the contents were actually UNsurprising. Where’s the drama?

Peter Brülls
Peter Brülls
8 years ago
Reply to  d

Wasn’t that her point?

I think she was right to point out that reading wills are pretty mundane after all, even if entertainment media does its best to convey that it’s associated with drama. Same with pregnancy and birth, by the way.

Ash (in US)
Ash (in US)
8 years ago

The choice to break this article up into three pieces was deeply flawed. I’m sorry, but this reads as filler. Entirely filler. This piece didn’t answer any of the lingering questions from the first article. I had two questions from the previous piece. 1) I wanted to know what happened when you didn’t sign the paper, and 2) I wanted to know what happens as far as the rest of the estate settlement. I don’t need to know exactly what you received and how you did so, but this portion of the article does not move this story forward. I… Read more »

Ash (in US)
Ash (in US)
8 years ago
Reply to  Ash (in US)

Short on time. Short. I miss my edit button.

mary w
mary w
8 years ago
Reply to  Ash (in US)

I don’t mean to be mean, however, these two articles are a hot mess. I vote for picking someone else as a staff writer.

imelda
imelda
8 years ago

Not only is this series flawed for being divided in 3, but it also feels pointless. We’re not actually going to learn anything. We’re not learning anything about how to make wills, how to deal with the family tensions, etc, nor are we learning much about her story in particular. Did the inheritance change her life? How did she handle the money? Did she learn any valuable lessons?

So far, there’s been nothing. I’m sorry to be harsh, but what is the point of this series?

Furthermore, all of the (inapplicable) movie analogies add nothing.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

The choice to break this article up into three pieces was deeply flawed

But it worked so well for George R.R. Martin.

Mom of five
Mom of five
8 years ago

My husband or I has received an inheritance a total of three times. Once I got a check for $1000 from a grandfather. Another time, we got a joint check for $4800 when my deceased mother inlaw’s house sold. And finally we got a surprise check in the mail when a spinster friend of my husband’s family left him a little more than $9000. Anyway, maybe because the amounts are small but I never saw or heard the wills. Possibly (I can’t recall) we saw my mother in law’s while cleaning out her home but that will amounted to all… Read more »

OneECC
OneECC
8 years ago

“Big life experiences: If you haven’t been through them, I wrote earlier, then images from movies and TV will shape your expectations and may leave you confused.”

No, actually, they won’t. Television and movies are not reality, and anyone who gets them confused with reality probably should not be writing a blog that is supposed to be on a practical matter (i.e., personal finance).

I agree with everyone that says that this piece was just fluffy filler and that breaking it down into three separate entries was a mistake.

Peter Brülls
Peter Brülls
8 years ago
Reply to  OneECC

Sorry, but she does have a point. TV *does* influence people – many, if not all, to a different degree.

They shape the perception of crime, for example, making people afraid of child-snatchers and terrorists, even though the actual numbers say something very differently.

Evangeline
Evangeline
8 years ago

I don’t think anyone expects things to move along like a movie. According to the writer, she received the will, read it and found it to be fair and equitable. That’s wonderful, except for one thing: How is that helpful to the rest of us seeking real financial information? Nothing learned here.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago

I have to say I’m a little disappointed in this article. I read the first article with to be continued teaser, and really not much here. I was hoping for conversations regarding if there was a mother in law, whether the will differed depending on who died first (Dad or step mom), whether there were any disagreements/disappointments or contesting of the will, whether the will specified burial preferences or what should be done if it doesn’t, and whether the writer felt it was more beneficial for items to be disbursed via a will, or beforehand in person.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  partgypsy

I mean “I read the first article with to be continued teaser and was looking forward with anticipation to 2nd installment, and”…

Ash (in US)
Ash (in US)
8 years ago

Ok, more useful criticism: First, I don’t feel like I can give you a full overview right now because I haven’t seen the entire piece. If some of this is addressed later on, then feel free to ignore it. The title states, “reading the will is not what you expect”. I think all of the examples and analogies given could be compressed into about a paragraph. I think the goal was to show that it’s all pretty mundane. So, to do that, I would think 3 examples or so would work–you could use the movie thing, how everyone aims for… Read more »

ipenka
ipenka
8 years ago

Really liked the first article. I don’t think the cliffhanger was a good move in this case though…now the third installment better be mind-blowing.

Still, an interesting piece overall. The bit about the crumpled second page is very true.

Its kind of like the “wallet audit” that J.D. recommended a while ago. We THINK everything is taken care of but there is always a few loose ends that people tend to forget. The effect of “forgetting” that item will cost us when shit hits the fan.

Kristen
Kristen
8 years ago

I understand the criticisms regarding drawing the posts out and not concluding, but I must say, I enjoy the writer’s voice and choice of topic.

Seema
Seema
8 years ago

I enjoyed the writer’s voice.

WWII Kid
WWII Kid
8 years ago

Oh, this is beautiful. My Mom wrote her Will years ago when she was mad at my brother and I. Not that there was anything to leave, as she had bankrupted herself financially and morally to support my other brother, the now deceased drug addict/alcoholic/criminal. She left her heavily mortgaged house to my spendthrift/lottery ticket addicted unemployed sister in a life estate (so long as she can afford it, she can live in it). She ALSO left her a $100,000 life insurance policy, to be placed in trust to be used for the care and maintenance of that house during… Read more »

Brent Pittman
Brent Pittman
8 years ago

Sounds like you had a great dad! I know we’ll all have to deal with this some day and hopefully everyone will have a will to guide them. I believe both of our parents have a will, but I think it will take a lot of time to sort through the assets and documents.

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