According to a 2022 survey published by Caring.com, an online advising service for seniors and caregivers, nearly 70% of Americans do not have a will or living trust in place, and only 16% believe that establishing a will by the age of 45 is necessary.
It perhaps isn’t surprising then that the actor Chadwick Boseman, star of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” had not established a will before he died of colon cancer in the summer of 2020 at 43. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, only 36% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 49 indicated that they have a will that describes their wishes for how they’d like their assets to be handled after their death.
Not long ago, I’d told my father that if he didn’t establish a will, I would remove myself from his financial affairs upon his death.
Whenever someone passes away without a will, I’m reminded of what Henry Ford was believed to have said during a magazine interview in 1921: “Money doesn’t change men, it merely unmasks them. If a man is naturally selfish or arrogant or greedy, the money brings that out, that’s all.” Too many of us have seen such sentiments in action, especially after the passing of a loved one.
In my own family, I’d seen firsthand how ugly family dynamics can get after someone passes away — even when there is relatively little money involved. Not long ago, I’d told my father that if he didn’t establish a will, I would remove myself from his financial affairs upon his death. It was an awkward conversation; no one enjoys confronting their mortality. But in erecting this boundary, I knew exactly what I was doing. And I’d encourage others to think about doing the same.
Upon reading that Boseman died without this important document, I thought for sure that the media would highlight in-fighting between family members scrambling for a piece of his estate. I was reminded of the recording artist Prince’s sudden death in 2016. He, too, died without a will. Without a spouse or living children, it seems that family members and strangers alike have come out of the woodwork in droves to fight for a piece of his massive estate in the years since.
According to current accounts, Boseman’s widow — the musician Taylor Simone Ledward — asked the court to split his $2.3 million estate evenly between herself and his parents. There have not been any reports so far of inheritance-related conflict between Boseman’s widow and his parents, or among any of his surviving relatives.
To the average family, this outcome sounds like a fairy tale. It’s a well-known trope that families fall out over their dead relatives’ assets, no matter how small or large.
Up until recently, I’d never known anyone in my family to bother with wills, citing too few assets to be worth the hassle (a well-known reason for why 1 in 3 people choose not to draw up wills, according to Caring.com). Right before my great-grandmother died in 1999, I remember the story of how she had told her grandchildren to “take what’s left and go out to dinner.” To her mind, a meal was about all her assets were worth.
Even still, our family has a sordid history of bad behavior when members pass away, regardless of the nest egg in question. This in-fighting came to light in particular when my grandmother died nearly 20 years ago.
She’d left behind an extremely modest five-figure sum that she assumed would automatically be split among her four children. One of those children, however, champed at the bit to get not only their intended share but everyone else’s. The issue required legal intervention, which ultimately led to an even smaller amount of money to divide up.
The inheritance that each sibling received was forgettable. But I will always remember how it felt to realize that I was related to a person who seemed perfectly happy to chew off their own limbs if it meant securing for themselves the largest possible piece of the estate — even if it only meant a few hundred more dollars, and even if they weren’t entitled to it. I witnessed history repeat itself after my grandfather’s death three years ago, when another family member drove across the country to drain my grandfather’s negligible bank accounts, his body not yet cremated. Not one to overcomplicate his care-free existence, my grandfather never sat with a professional to draw up a will.
According to experts, there doesn’t seem to be a wrong time to make a will. In most states, a person can legally draw up a will as soon as they turn 18, but other “trigger events” — like getting married, having kids, starting a business and building assets — may mean it’s time to establish a will. Updates may also become necessary as we get older and circumstances change.
While establishing a will does not necessarily prevent family disputes, it can make things easier in the event of a death and assets to manage. According to Investopedia, an online financial management resource, “A will is a legal document that sets forth your wishes regarding the distribution of your property and the care of any minor children. If you die without a will, those wishes may not be carried out. Further, your heirs may end up spending additional time, money, and emotional energy to settle your affairs after you’re gone.”
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My father is one of the first in our family with actual affairs to settle, however modest they may be. But as his next of kin, I refuse to do battle in courtrooms to fight with greedy distant relatives over whatever pennies they believe they’re entitled to. Nearly everyone I know has a horror story about family members behaving badly around estate-related issues in the wake of a loved one’s death. Having seen this occur in my family more than once, the boundary has been drawn: Establishing a will is an act of love for those you leave behind. I refuse to enter the ring with anyone who chooses to complicate that process out of a desire to cash in some pennies during a time of tremendous grief.
I’m glad that Boseman will get to rest in peace, knowing that his family chose an honorable way forward. If only that were the rule and not the exception.
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