While many people like to plan every detail of their lives, planning for death is not often high on the list.
The statistics bear this out. According to the most recent data, the rate of Americans dying without a will, called intestacy, is between 40 to 70%, depending on factors such as race and income levels.
University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, in tandem with Fort Valley State University Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, recently offered a free program for underserved landowners in 18 middle Georgia counties to address the issue.
A part of the Georgia Farmers Initiative for Training and Sustainability (GA-FITS) program, their efforts helped 61 Georgians complete estate plans through estate planning education and technical assistance.
“It’s an important topic because it goes across all demographics,” said Keishon Thomas, a UGA Extension Family and Consumer Sciences agent in Bibb County. “At some point we all must leave here, and we’re not sure how or when we’re going to leave. It’s a lot easier when you have estate planning in place.”
The issue of intestacy is especially pronounced in Georgia.
A recent study by the USDA Forest Service and UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government on 10 Georgia counties estimated that nearly 40,000 acres are likely heirs’ property, or “a home or land that passes from generation to generation without a legally designated owner.”
This results in ownership divided among living descendants, which can create significant challenges for the owners of the property, including land loss and complex legal issues.
One study of 14 Southern states estimated that 6.8 million acres of heirs’ property exist, with a value of $47.3 billion. Heirs’ property is most predominant among Black landholders, contributing to millions of acres of land loss over the last century among that demographic.
The estate-planning program targeted more than 22,000 Georgians. Ultimately, 235 participants received estate planning education via 17 workshops. In addition to education, the program offered free legal assistance, which helped residents secure more than 470 acres of land valued at $3.3 million.
Attorneys working on the project provided direct education and technical assistance, contributing more than $14,000 in in-kind donations.
“We educate, but we also remove that barrier of cost,” Thomas said. “With education, people make better, more informed decisions and they feel more empowered to make those decisions.”
The workshops covered estate planning basics such as creating a living will or an advanced healthcare directive, which allows a person’s health care wishes to be carried out while still alive but incapacitated; a last will and testament, which addresses decisions related to property and other assets after death; and assigning an executor, which allows another person to manage and oversee the distribution of assets on your behalf.
Facilitators also explained the power of attorney designation, which allows a designee to make financial decisions if the client is unable to do so.
“On the educational Zoom workshops we did, I could see the light come on for people,” Thomas said. “And when those people tell other people, that’s when you know they’ve got it.”
Post-workshop evaluations showed 70% of participants said they learned new and useful information, and 77% reported they would share the information with friends and family.
“This will give my family members peace of mind upon my death and during a time of need,” one Houston County participant wrote. “The clinic was very helpful, professional and informative. It helped me to finalize my assets and prioritize what is important for my life.”
In addition to Thomas, UGA Extension FACS Agent Ida Jackson and Fort Valley State FACS Agents Brenda Maddox and Millicent Price helped facilitate the program, primarily to existing Extension clients.
Thomas said the group plans to offer the program again. For more information, contact Thomas at email@example.com or Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maddox and Price can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I feel like this is what Extension is for,” Thomas said. “This is so needed because it’s an area where people don’t have a lot of education or a lot of access to information.”