3 Money Lessons That My Dad Taught Me … in Death

Liz Ozaist

Lesson #1: Everyone Should Have an Estate Plan . . . or at Least a Will

Let’s face it: Few of us like to think about death—let alone our own mortality. But having a sit-down with an estate attorney will take up far less time of your free time than the time (and sanity) suck that can be the probate process for your loved ones.

And I should know. In my house, we now refer to life events as either happening pre-Victor or post-Victor. Anything good and joyous typically applies to the pre- phase—before my life essentially imploded after I received that clichéd 3 A.M. call that my father had suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage. At 54.

RELATED: Dos & Don’ts of Estate Planning

Since then, I have spent what likely amounts to months of my life meeting with sundry lawyers, visiting one too many government offices, juggling endless bureaucratic red tape and having dozens of documents notarized … and renotarized. (I’ve seriously considered becoming a notary myself!)

And if I thought that writing out check after check to cover endless wedding expenses bordered on the comical, I can tell you that money really adds up when you have a stable of attorneys on retainer. Of course, the little annoyances of untangling an estate can also cost you.

Take my father’s electric blue Harley—a bike that I will never drive because I can barely lift it, let alone straddle it long enough to kick-start the thing. You see, my father lost the deed. He also originally bought the bike in Connecticut, but somehow still managed to register it in Virginia. In order for me to transfer it to my name in New York, I had to mail four different notarized documents and a check to both the Connecticut DMV and the Virginia DMV. Have I mentioned that we also never found the keys?

To be fair, there are upsides to being the executor of an estate. Nothing can ever replace my dad, but, in his absence, I am grateful to have these reminders in my life.

But if you take the time to create a smart estate plan, you’ll not only extend a courtesy to the important people in your life, but you’ll also safeguard hard-earned assets for future generations. It may seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many of my friends’ parents don’t even have basic wills—and outright refuse to talk about it.

Case in point: One of my estate attorneys, a father of two, recently confessed to me that he and his wife (also an estate attorney!) don’t have a will.

Depending on how complicated your situation is, you can either hire an estate attorney to help guide you through the process, or draft your own last will and testament using a site like legalzoom.com, which offers the service for a starting rate of just $69.

My own attorney’s mind-blowing admission, coupled with my dad’s lack of proper planning, inspired me and my husband to draft up a will and an estate plan, which covers everything from naming an executor to electing the lucky soul who’d be tasked with handling my husband’s burgeoning art book collection. Since we have no kids, we even drafted a plan for the care of our two spoiled Dachshunds—one of which, I may add, was my dad’s dog!

  • Marie

    First off, I would like to express my condolences for your loss. My father passed away suddenly earlier this year and left a similarly convoluted situation with no will – and he was an attorney. These are wise lessons to learn, though I sincerely wish you didn’t have to experience this. Every adult needs to have a will and have their paperwork in order. Otherwise, they are leaving a mess for their surviving loved ones that can take many years to sort out.

    • ridgerunner

      Not every adult needs to have a will, but every adult needs to have a good estate plan, which may just mean making sure beneficiary forms and TOD designations are in place.

  • Sherry

    Liz & Marie – My condolences to both of you. I lost my dad in January after a 2 year battle with lung cancer. During that time, discussion of wills and estate planning came up often, and Dad’s answers were always, “Your mom can do whatever she wants.” and “She knows what I want.” Mom finally did call a lawyer about writing up a will but was told that since all of their assets were in both of their names, a will was unnecessary. Hello?! What about after Mom passes?

    The lesson that I’ve learned from my parents’ situation is that despite their reassurances, our parents may not be as financially saavy as they’d like us to believe. For instance, mine thought that the surviving spouse would get his/her social security check, plus at least part of the deceased’s. So Mom was surprised to learn that she’s only entitled to hers since it’s the larger of the two. It’s like turning back the clock 40+ years when Mom had to stretch Dad’s sole Navy paycheck to cover all of our bills and living expenses. I know she can do it but I hate that she has to…

  • Steve Booth

    Having been involved with several estates either as a resource or executor, I’d say that you need a will, a letter of instructions and a document saying where all of the assets are… complete with usernames and passwords. Assets also being that person’s e-mail(s). You’re going to need them. 401(k)s and IRAs should specify the beneficiary. They don’t go through probate.

  • B

    As a Notary Public, you can’t notarize your own documents.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maryanne.cullen.1 MaryAnne Cullen

    I am also dejunking as much as possible so as to make it simpler for my children. We have a great will and estate plan as we have 9 children and don’t want fighting.

  • CTwildheart

    I bring this up every Thanksgiving. My family calls me morbid – but I just want them all to be prepared. When my Dad passed away he had no will and I was the executor. I learned the hard way…even if you have little – make a will!

  • Patty

    This author makes some fine points, I just wish she wouldn’t do it in such a patronizing and self-aggrandizing manner. I came here looking for information in advance of a parent’s impending death and I have to say that this article’s self-congratulatory, elitist overtones are off-putting to those of us who are truly struggling. It’s my opinion this site would do well to employ stricter editorial controls –– in particular, those that would allow the widest possible audience to experience the benefits of this important information.