Published on 07/23/08

Wills help to avoid confusion, fights after death

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

A few weeks after they married, Joan Koonce’s husband was diagnosed with leukemia. Their marital bliss turned instantly to anxiety and long hours in the hospital.

“We really didn’t have time to think or feel,” Koonce said. “We just got into action.”

Two and a half years later, she said goodbye to him for the last time. They hadn’t planned for death so early in their lives.

He had created a will during his previous marriage. But a will is invalid in Georgia if someone remarries, has a child or adopts a child after the document is drawn up. After his death, she was left to deal with the paperwork and headache of watching the state dole out her husband’s estate.

It is important to update your will when these situations occur, said Koonce, an associate professor and financial management specialist for University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

The life expectancy of a female born today is 80 years. It is 75 years for a man, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those years aren’t promised.

“You need to prepare early,” Koonce said. “And you need to make changes to your will as your family situation and circumstances change.”

Writing a will means thinking about death, a topic a lot of people don’t want to talk about, she said.

“Making decisions about who you want to have what and how you want it distributed to them can become overwhelming,” Koonce said, “and the more you have, the harder it gets.”

Even if you aren’t rich, she said, a will is still important.

“You don’t have to own a lot to have a will,” she said. “What you own may not have huge monetary value, but if it has lots of sentimental value. If you want to make sure it goes to a particular person, then you need to have a will.”

It’s often those sentimental things that are fought over the most. “For example, it may be important that your granddaughter gets your doll collection,” she said.

To get started with a will, she gives these tips:

1. Start early. Many young, unmarried people don’t think about estate planning. But they should, just as they should think about the possibility of disability or the inability to earn an income.

2. List your heirs. Beside each name, list what you want them to have. Be as detailed as possible.

3. Meet with an attorney. While online kits are available, attorneys know state laws “and can help you think through many things that can become issues after you die,” she said.

Koonce had her will redrawn this year. If something happens to her son, her assets will go to her church.

“My lawyer included the current address or wherever the church is located at my death,” she said. Attorneys “think about those things we don’t think about. Once the attorney mentioned it, I realized how important it was because there are other churches with the same name.”

The cost for drawing up a will can range from $300 and up, depending on the complexity of the will and estate planning.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.