There are many reasons why otherwise responsible adults do not make a will. They’re too busy, put off by the perceived cost, or unwilling to ponder their own death.
Financial advisers hear these excuses repeatedly. Usually, they respond with empathy and patience as they try to overcome client resistance.
Here’s what they will not say out loud: Refusing to draft a will is a final act of meanness. It’s a sure way to tarnish your memory, unleash family conflict and waste money on lawyers and taxes that would have gone to your heirs.
Mike Wren would never utter such words to a client. The Leawood, Kan.-based certified financial planner says almost everyone takes his advice and makes a will. He calls those rare few who refuse “super-selfish.”
“It’s when someone says, ‘Oh, I won’t be around,’ so they don’t care,” Wren said. “When I hear that, I leave meetings shaking my head. I’m thinking, ‘This person is just thinking of it as their problem and not doing anything about it. But it’s their family’s problem.’”
He acknowledges that many people “hate the death conversation.” So about four years ago, he and his colleagues created a planning tool that prompts clients to ponder how their demise would affect their heirs.
Billed as a “Legacy Love Letter,” the 10-page form isn’t a will or legal document. Instead, it serves as a clearinghouse of information so that survivors have a roadmap to follow in the immediate aftermath of their loved one’s passing. The form enables clients to list where all their funds are held — with contact information for financial service providers, passwords for online accounts and other helpful facts.
Wren does not keep a copy of the completed Legacy Love Letter. He simply asks clients, “Where do you keep it?”
“So if the client dies, we can tell the adult child or sibling who calls us to check the top right drawer in the bedroom,” Wren said. “Having that document really helps them, because the next one- to two weeks [after the death] are chaotic for the family” as they try to track down where assets are held and how to access them.
Advisers tell clients that a will serves many purposes. In addition to divvying up assets — from cash to cars to collectibles — a will can specify one’s wishes for burial, guardians for minors, and other legacy issues.
Otherwise, settling an estate can slip out of a family’s hands. “Without a will, state law determines the process,” Wren said. “The state becomes the de facto decision-maker. Things may not turn out the way the decedent would’ve wished.”
Experienced advisers know they need to be nimble in how they broach the topic of wills. Nagging can backfire. It’s better to customize their appeal so that it resonates with the client. The key is pressing the right button that propels the client to act.
George F. Reilly, a certified financial planner and estate planning attorney in Occoquan, Va., prefers to frame the conversation as “peace of mind planning” rather than “end of life planning.”
‘Control from the grave’
He tries other tactics tailored to a client’s priorities and sensibility. For controlling personalities, he might say, “A will lets you exert control from the grave.”
“That gets their attention,” Reilly said. “They like the idea of knowing what will happen after they die.”
For others, he might paint a picture of their grieving survivors — and the frustrations they can face in handling the remnants of the deceased’s financial life.
“I refer to it as giving a final gift to your loved ones,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll move from final gift to guilt and say, ‘You’ll leave a mess and they won’t think as highly of you.’ I talk about the stress and burden on them if there’s no plan in place, that in addition to the emotional strain, they now have to deal with legal and financial matters that could easily have been addressed in advance.”
Superstition can make matters worse. Clients may assume they’re tempting fate by drafting a will. “Some clients don’t get wills because they think it will jinx them,” said Nicholas Bunio, a certified financial planner in Downingtown, Pa. “They think getting a will might cause them to die. Because that’s not very logical, it’s hard to overcome.”
Bunio, 31, responds by saying, “I got my will at 25 and I’m still here.” He also lists all the reasons to have a will, educating clients about the costs of non-action. “For more complex issues, I bring up the benefits of taxes, protecting inheritances, protecting family members who are not good with their finances,” he said. “And yes, in all cases I bring up horror stories of bad planning.”
More: ‘We are surprised and bewildered’: My brother passed away and left his house, cash and possessions to charity. Can his siblings contest his will?
Plus: What happens if you’re incapacitated? How to get your advance directives in order.