March 28, 2014 10:53:56 AM
Unlike a good number of my friends and acquaintances, I truly enjoyed my law school classes. My plan when I graduated from Mississippi State University was to go to law school at Ole Miss. I had been accepted and scheduled to start classes there when the Navy made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
The upshot was I postponed my law school experience until a bit later in life. I had some long range plans to practice based on a wonderful story that the CBS news program "60 Minutes" did many years ago.
The program was memorable and inspiring. It was the story of two women, lifelong friends who attended law school together. They both got married but did not put their law degree to professional use. When they were both widowed, they formed a partnership to practice law pro bono in California. They provided free legal services to indigent victims of domestic violence. I thought of it as a wonderful way to solve the dilemma of what to do when you "retire."
Law school was pretty much an excellent mental exercise for me. I had the luxury of not being so dependent on the outcome that I agonized over each test and assignment, unlike a friend of mine, a highly successful practicing attorney who still has nightmares about oversleeping and missing a contracts final exam.
The study of law is a lot like reading a whole bunch of short stories without happy endings. Law school is many hours spent studying stories of how people get crossways with each other and how those problems get settled through the use of the legal system and at the expense of their sanity and a good chunk of their bank account.
One of the most enlightening courses is a core law school course about estates. It is usually titled, "Wills, Trusts and Estates" or something like it. The essence of this course is the transformation of the family members' relationships toward one another after the matriarch or patriarch has died. When the person, who was the glue that held the family in check is no longer in the picture, the remaining relatives entitled to some portion of the estate become unrecognizable to one another. Sadly, this seems to be the general rule and not the exception.
This is a topic that affects all of us. It is not as though we are talking about a theoretical issue. When last I checked we are all subject to the grim reaper's harvest day. So unless you have a perverse sense of humor and envision yourself sitting on high watching your relatives duke it out over the DVD collection hidden in your sock drawer, you should take pity on them and get your will done.
If you own anything at all: a car, art, a piece of property, a guitar, anything of value, you should have a will that says who you want your "stuff" to go to. Leaving it to be divided equally among several heirs is a recipe for discord among your family and friends. That is an unkind legacy to leave those you care for. Be specific in who gets what. This is your last opportunity to control what happens to you and your things. Exercise it.
Your will can and should be updated as your circumstances change. It is fairly easy to get the basic framework of your will and then as you acquire property, get married, get divorced, or have another child, you can change it.
It is also important to have a talk with those who might be expecting something from your estate to let them know what they will (or will not) receive. It takes courage to grow old. You might as well use some of that reserve of intestinal fortitude and suck it up and tell them what they can expect and why. If they deserve consideration in your will, don't they deserve to know what to expect so there won't be a strain on those you leave behind?
Being responsible isn't necessarily fun, but it is necessary. It seems incredibly sad to think that your desire to provide for your family leaves them at odds with each other and forever taints their ability to work together or to share family moments. Don't be the catalyst to set the stage for your heirs to behave in ways you could never imagine.
A law school education can be an eye-opening experience. It is certainly a fundamental course in the extent of man's misbehavior toward his fellow man. It can also offer a hint of what prevention looks like when it comes to protecting your family from their grief and greed.