Here's my hope for after I die: My kids gather and weep copious tears — for a bit. Then they pause to say, “Wow! Mom was so generous and organized, right to the end. Let's honor that by being best friends forever!"
Thanks to a legendary sibling-splitting battle over my grandmother's modest estate, my biggest fear is that my death will create family problems bad enough to estrange my kids from each other. Either that or they will curse me for mistakes I've left behind. So I've been maniacally tying up loose ends, even though I hope to have decades before I pass to that great library/day spa in the sky. That's heaven, right? My husband and I rewrote our wills. I'm updating the beneficiaries of my IRA. And I'm telling everyone what I want done with my body postdeath.
But when it comes to end-of-life and postmortem issues, too many people go the other way. Even with the best intentions, they make a hash of their affairs, leaving kids clueless, powerless and sometimes moneyless, too. Also really angry.
"The kids feel like their parents left them a mess,” says Sandra Clapp, an estate-planning attorney in Eagle, Idaho, who has seen it all. “Of course, they love their parents and don't want to be angry, but there is this feeling of ‘How dare you leave me to figure this out?’ “
I've talked to Clapp and other experts to find out what I shouldn't do if I want to leave a harmonious and loving family in my wake. These are the blunders to avoid.
The client had completely preplanned his own funeral, remembers Oklahoma City estate-planning attorney Jerry E. Shiles. “He bought his plot and prepaid for the funeral, wrote out the hymns, the order of hymns, who he wanted pallbearers to be, who the minister should be, what the obituary should say, what the eulogy should say.” But he never told any of his three kids, who quickly put together a funeral when he died, making different choices (and paying double) all the way through. Two weeks later, when they saw Shiles, he said, “I'm sure you were comforted to know your dad had everything preplanned.” And that's how they found out.
Not all secrets are easy to share, but nonetheless they should be told. One couple went through a will-writing session with Les Kotzer, a wills and estates lawyer in Thornhill, Ontario. After they left, the husband returned by himself to say, “My wife doesn't know this, but I have a son in the Bahamas.” Kotzer had to drop the couple as clients — it would have been a conflict of interest for him to write either will once he knew about the secret son.
Fail on the follow-through
There are countless stories of elders telling their relatives, “When I go, this ____ [fill in the blank: ring, painting, house] is yours.” But if that intended gift isn't recorded in a will or an addendum to it, the gift may never pass to that person. Kotzer once saw brothers get violent over a Howdy Doody lunch box. If you want someone in particular to get your special lunch box, put that in your will. Or consider skipping the whole shebang and selling your item on eBay.