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Estate Planning Before Tragedy Strikes

detail of pallbearers carrying a white coffin with flowers

Most of us pay lip service to the idea life is fleeting and uncertain, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to make that knowledge feel true.

My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Bahrain as part of the Denver Broncos Stampede Brass to perform at the Formula One Grand Prix in April. Of course, we jumped at the chance to travel 7,620 miles across the globe along with 100 of our friends and colleagues. We had traveled to Taiwan with many of the same performers in May 2014, and we were eager to experience another culture again. I was especially excited to see one of the color guard members whom we had befriended in Taiwan at our first rehearsal. At 43 years old, he was full of life, ebullient, always smiling, and a wonderful dancer and instructor to boot.

I say “was” because he is no longer any of those things. In the early morning hours of July 8, our friend, who had been so healthy and vivacious, died.

I didn’t know he was ill until I saw him in mid-June. He looked like a shell of himself, having lost about 40 pounds off of his already slender dancer’s frame. He was gaunt and hollow. He told me that he had contracted a gastrointestinal parasite in Bahrain and had just gotten out of the hospital. He was optimistic that he was on the mend and would be able to get back to doing what he loved so much – performing – very soon. Unfortunately, our performance in Bahrain turned out to be his last. His death has left a gaping hole in our community. His presence will be missed for a long time.

My friend was not married and did not have any children, though he did have a pet cat. I do not know whether he had a will or any form of estate planning. I would not be surprised, however, if he had not planned for his death in advance. After all, he was young, healthy and athletic; death is hardly something someone in his circumstances expects to come so quickly.

Had he not prepared a will, he would not have been alone. According to a June 2016 survey conducted by U.S. Legal Wills, 72 percent of Americans do not have an up-to-date will. Sixty-three percent have no will at all, while 9 percent have a will that is not current. Unsurprisingly, the largest proportion of Americans without a will consisted of those under age 45.

With a rising average life expectancy, most Americans in this group feel as if they have all the time in the world before they need to think of something as unsettling as their own mortality. Additionally, many younger Americans do not have many assets. It is easy to imagine that, since they don’t have much to give away, estate planning is unnecessary. Many of them fail to consider their greatest asset when choosing not to write a will – their children.

After the initial shock of my friend’s death wore off, I started thinking about how any one of us could have contracted that parasite. We took all of the standard precautions associated with traveling abroad: we didn’t drink anything but bottled water; we ate foods prepared in a safe environment; we washed our hands often. While neither my husband nor I became sick, what if one or both of us had contracted the same parasite? If we had died, what would have happened to my 4-year-old daughter and my 12-year-old stepdaughter?

Before looking into the law, like many young parents, I assumed that my wishes for my 4-year-old would be carried out by my family in the event anything happened to me and my husband. Without a legal document, however, my wishes mean nothing. Were we to die without a will, the court would decide which family member would care for my daughter based on her “best interests.” How would the court know what these interests are? What if my family and my husband’s family disagree on where she should be?

Similarly, any assets we had would be handled by the state. Poor estate planning on superstar Prince’s part recently illustrated how dying “intestate,” or without a will, can affect your family for years to come.

My husband and I had not written a will before we left for Taiwan on that trip several years ago. Though everything had turned out fine, this time my mother put her foot down. She would not even entertain the idea of watching my daughter during our trip to Bahrain unless we both wrote a will. We had our wills signed and notarized 48 hours before we left the country, and I made sure to tell multiple people the location of the wills, just in case. Now I am grateful to my mother for spurring our decision to compose wills. We also plan to keep our wills updated; since writing them, we purchased a home, so we will need to update the documents accordingly.

I write this blog in memory of my friend, and I use his story to urge my peers in their 20s, 30s and 40s to consider starting their estate planning now. There are many online sources, such as Nolo, that will point you in the right direction for a small fee. My colleague Anthony Criscuolo offered tips for the rising professional in our firm’s Sentinel newsletter and Melinda Kibler recently wrote about estate planning for parents of young children. If composing your own will does not interest you, or your situation is especially complex, contact a family lawyer.

Knowing that my daughter’s lifestyle would continue according to my wishes if I were no longer here is worth the time and effort I put into drawing up my own will. I know from experience that estate planning can be a daunting task, but it will ease your mind once it’s completed – especially in the face of an unexpected loss.

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