My cousin Simon was niftar. Although not exactly young, he certainly was too young to die. The news was shocking, sobering, and sad.
As far back as I can remember, Simon had a very difficult life, one filled with illnesses, disappointments, and hardships. I don’t mean that during his lifetime he experienced these things, but rather that he experienced those on an ongoing basis; they always were part of his life and it was impossible to imagine Simon without these problems.
He never married, suffered from loneliness, and had difficulty walking even short distances. He looked like an easy target to torment, and some of the neighbors in his apartment building did exactly that; they were merciless.
Because of his many and ongoing difficulties, Simon was grumpy, rude, and when the stress level spiked he sometimes unloaded on people who did absolutely nothing to him. He had very few friends, and they learned when speaking with him how important it was to choose words very carefully.
Relatives learned this, too. When cousins would call and ask simple questions – “How are you?” or “What’s happening?” – he took those the wrong way. Of course these are standard questions relatives and friends ask each other, but for Simon they were like pouring salt on open wounds: very painful.
How was he? Awful. He always felt like that and hated to be asked the question “What’s new?” Nothing. There were still the same bunch of problems he always had, and occasionally there were a few new ones. There never seemed to be anything good, uplifting, or fun happening in his life; only bad things.
From Simon’s perspective, when relatives asked him how he was, they weren’t being friendly and showing interest; these questions were an additional source of pain. He didn’t want to be reminded every time the phone rang about all of his difficulties, nor did he want to be asked for updates about his problems each time he spoke with a relative.
Finally, Simon figured out how to avoid those. He moved out of state, didn’t tell anyone he was leaving, and didn’t give anyone his new phone number. He chose to bear the burden of his misery alone and took refuge in his solitude.
Many Questions, Few Answers
This article isn’t intended to be a eulogy for someone readers never met. It is meant to point out the importance of addressing something very often postponed because it’s scary to think about, requires making important decisions, and is expensive to implement: the importance of making a will.
In Simon’s case there was none, in part because he was not wealthy and felt there was no reason to, and probably because he was always too preoccupied by personal problems to focus on that. Yet even in his case that was an error.
I and Simon’s other surviving relatives – now also his heirs – were not shown the death certificate and were given a very unsatisfying explanation about the cause of death. Nor did we learn how or when an attorney was chosen to handle his finances and estate.
We were shown one bank statement but were not permitted to review Simon’s checking account or other records of the weeks and months prior to his passing, nor were we allowed to see what deposits were made into his checking account, the withdrawals made from it, and for what purposes those were made. The attorney told us that more than half of his assets went to pay various debt and for legal fees, and at $500/hour, which is the going rate for such services, those fees add up very quickly.
There also were no explanations of what happened to any of his effects. Simon always had a car, but there was no mention of one. He must have had at least a small amount of cash at hand, but there is no record of that, either. Nor was there any mention of other possessions such as an enviable set of old Lionel trains, his mother’s jewelry, his watch, cell phone, or old family photographs, which held great sentimental value to him; no mention of anything at all.
Given the assets remaining in Simon’s estate, each of his heirs stood to inherit just under $3,000. However, this number is misleading, as it doesn’t take into account the nearly $10,000 in burial and related costs, which was an expense that for some reason the estate was not allowed to pay and was picked up by family.
Moreover, the attorney informed us that before any monies could be paid to survivors, an heir search would have to be made for surviving relatives on Simon’s paternal side. If any are found they too would get an equal share of the inheritance; if there were none, then for legal reasons all of his remaining assets would go to the State of Florida, which is where he resided when he passed away. Meanwhile, the attorney’s meter for billing legal expenses continues to tick.
Where There’s A Will
For obvious reasons, wealthy people need to have a will. However, even those who are financially hard pressed may have more assets than they realize: small amounts of stocks and bonds, jewelry, collectables, car(s), a small on-line business, furniture, or the like. All of these have some value and in total may reach a surprising number.
Of course, everyone wants their assets to be left for the people they feel closest to; they also may want to help worthwhile charitable causes and institutions.
The final wishes of the deceased are made very clear when there is a will. However, when no will is made, bitter disputes sometimes erupt over who should get which and how much of the assets. In some cases, relatives who had virtually no contact with the deceased during his or her lifetime suddenly surface and very vocally and shamelessly demand more than their fair share. And they make this sound very logical and fair. They’ll tell other relatives, “You have plenty of money and don’t need more,” or “I live in a bad neighborhood and have to move.”
Families have quite literally been not just torn apart by disputes over inheritance but ripped into shreds. Individuals who always had been respectful and respectable suddenly show a very different side of their personalities. They become avaricious, jealous, insatiable, begrudging, and quite frankly just plain piggish. Heated arguments ensue, blood relatives start to loathe each other, and relationships that were solid for decades are quickly destroyed. There is no longer any right or wrong, a feeling to be decent or to act reasonably; selfishness and hatred of other relatives become overwhelming. And the wishes of the deceased are ignored and trampled upon.
Assets that were painstakingly accumulated over many years are squandered on costly and unnecessary legal battles. Even when families agree that assets should be divided, arguments erupt: one party wants to sell the house while another is adamant that it not be sold; who should get the jewelry, how much is it really worth, etc. In the process, relatives hurl terribly hurtful comments at each other, and even when these disputes are finally resolved the hurtful comments are never forgotten and are never forgiven.
You want to be certain that your assets go to the people who are closest to you. You also want to do what you can to prevent bitter family feuds, and to keep your assets out of the hands of undeserving or obnoxious individuals.
In the case of Simon, our family was lucky. No one was grabby, selfish, or hostile. We were respectful to each other and made decisions as a group. If anything, the family unit was strengthened by this sad event. But not everyone is as lucky…
Making a will requires your making difficult decisions. You will have to consult someone with expertise in this area to make sure everything is done to the exact legal requirements and that your decisions cannot be challenged. Don’t expect this to be inexpensive, because it won’t be.
If you do make out a will you will gain the peace of mind that your assets will be divided according to your wishes. And you’ll be doing a final kindness for those you are closest to. There’s no dollar value on this, but for sure it’s quite substantial.