Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

February, 2016

Imagine if the state of Maryland planned your funeral. Your loved ones could gather in a state-run funeral chapel under the hum of florescent lights. Amid plastic chrysanthemums and piped-in organ music, you would be eulogized by a state employee who had never met you. With little to go on, he could speak favorably of your diligence in paying your taxes and avoiding incarceration. Then your remains would be conveyed to a public cemetery and interred beneath a marker bearing the identifier by which the state knows you best—your Social Security number.

How does that sound? Like a Las Vegas wedding, this scenario may have a certain kitsch appeal, but most of us would prefer something a bit more personal. Fortunately, the state won’t plan your funeral, even if you fail to do so. But if you die without a Will, it will plan your estate, and the results can be just as regrettable.

For many of us, the people we consider loved ones aren’t necessarily related to us by blood or marriage, although they may be. But rather than considering how long you and your partner have been together, or the fact that your ex is really your closest friend, the state will distribute your assets by looking to your family tree.

For example, if you are single and have no children, your assets would go to your parents. If you are legally married and do have children, the first $15,000.00 of your estate would go to your spouse, and the rest would be split between your spouse and the kids. Or if you are married without children, $15,000.00 would go to your spouse and the remainder would be divided between your spouse and your parents.

How does that sound? Maryland’s “default” estate plan may be exactly what you want. But if it isn’t, even its potential kitsch appeal won’t be enough to overcome a simple truth—you really ought to prepare a Will.

A Will allows you to say who will inherit from you. Dying without one, or “intestate,” would be like sailing without a compass. You might get where you want to be, but you might wind up hopelessly lost instead. This is especially true for members of the LGBT community and those in nontraditional families.

Under the rules of intestacy, an unmarried partner, or anyone who is not a spouse or blood relation, would be effectively disinherited. Even couples who are legally married often want to include people other than each other in their estate plans—the family friend who has seen them through thick and thin, the favorite niece or nephew, the charity they have long supported.

Through your Will, you can also make provisions beyond saying who gets what. For example, who should settle your estate? You might prefer to have your closest friend, rather than your closest relative, take on the job. If you have minor children, who should their guardians be? Should they receive their inheritance through a trust? If so, who should serve as trustee?

Some of these questions may be difficult to consider. They include the what ifs and the worst-case scenarios we would rather not think about. But these questions will be much easier to contemplate in the light of day, when heads are clear and emotions calm, rather than after a crisis erupts, when it may simply be too late.

Preparing a Will is also an opportunity to consider other essential matters. Having a financial Power of Attorney and Advance Medical Directive prepared will enable someone you trust to manage your finances or medical care if you become unable to. Assets like life insurance and retirement accounts, which generally name a beneficiary, should be coordinated to work in tandem with your Will. And the estate plans of couples with more significant assets can be set up to help minimize estate taxes.

The task of preparing a Will may be easy to put off, but it’s also easy to take on. A quick phone call to an estate-planning attorney is all it takes to get started. In the course of two appointments—one to plan your estate and one to execute the documents—you can trump Maryland’s “default” estate plan with one tailored to your preferences.

How does that sound?

This article is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice.