A novel I read a few months ago about a couple who died unexpectedly while on a trip, leaving behind two young daughters, got me thinking about my will.
Yes, I know, it's not exactly a subject people want to think about or discuss. But it's important nonetheless. You want to leave instructions and have things in order so that your family can be cared for.
My husband and I had wills prepared nine years ago and I reviewed various do-it-yourself computer programs that created wills. Then I took the finished products to a local lawyer to make sure the will we chose would carry out our wishes.
At the time, we just had one child and while our will accommodated any children born or adopted in the future, it doesn't mention our son, who was born a few years later, by name.
This got me wondering: is it necessary for people to review wills once they're done? Does a will automatically account for more children, or what if your child has grown and is now an adult or your family circumstances have otherwise changed? What if nothing has changed, but it's just been years since your last review?
I'm not a gambler, but I'd probably be correct in saying a lot of people either: a) don't have a will because they've never checked it off their ''to-do list'' or b) if they have one, they probably haven't pulled it out or reviewed it since it was first completed.
So I consulted with officials at the Akron Bar Association, who directed me to David Woodburn, an attorney with Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP and the probate chair for the association. Woodburn agreed to review my will and offer advice to others on when a will should be completed and updated.
Woodburn said people should review their will every few years — he suggests every three to five years.
''It doesn't mean you have to change them,'' said Woodburn. But you're looking for a few things, including reviewing whether the people you've put in charge of your finances or as a guardian for your children are still accurate, he said.
For instance, a lot of people name their parent as executor of the will, meaning they would be in charge of carrying out the wishes of the will, and if that parent is older or has dementia or has moved to Florida, you might want to name someone else, he said.
Similarly with guardians, ''people have falling-outs with siblings and don't want that person to be the guardian,'' Woodburn said.
You might also want to go over your will with a lawyer to see if there have been any changes in the law that will affect estate
If you don't see any changes that need to be made, then it's probably not necessary to consult with your lawyer, Woodburn said.
If there are changes you need to make, you don't have to rip up the old one and start from scratch. Usually, a lawyer will complete a codicil, which is a fancy word for addendum, or addition, to the will. Woodburn said it's not uncommon to have multiple codicils, each one clarifying a previous one. Sometimes when there are a lot of codicils, a lawyer would suggest a fresh will to make it less confusing.
Woodburn restated our will to put in our son's name and to update our executor choice. I don't know whether our choice has changed (I don't think so) or if I was remiss in the original will and our wishes at the time, but when I reviewed the existing will with Woodburn, I realized that for the last nine years, it did not reflect what we thought it did. It now does, so obviously this exercise was a good one for me to review our will.
Here are some answers from Woodburn on various scenarios:
Q: Are future children included in a will?
A: As long as the original will is worded that any future born or adopted children are included in the will, you don't legally have to update a will to put a child's name in. But you might have some hurt feelings, he said. ''How come Mom didn't name me, but put my sister in?'' Woodburn said.
Q: What if I've moved to another state?
A: That shouldn't affect your will, but each state does have different probate procedures. If you move, it makes sense to have your will checked by a lawyer in that state, he said.
Q: What if the children have grown up?
A: Woodburn said if the will is worded correctly, it should spell out that if a child has reached 21, he or she would be entitled to the distribution of the estate outright instead of through a custodial or guardian account.
Q: What if I've gotten a divorce?
A: By law, the ex-spouse is disinherited even though the will might still name him or her, said Woodburn, but it's always advisable to update a will right after a divorce.
Q: What about beneficiary information?
A: You want to update any beneficiary information through your accounts and check with your human resources department at work. Often, people erroneously think a will spells out all the beneficiary information. But if you've filled out beneficiary documents on specific accounts, those would still stand, said Woodburn.
This was another good reason for this exercise for me. When I checked on my 401(k) beneficiary forms, I had only listed my husband since we had no children when I started at the Beacon Journal 15 years ago. The kids have now been added as secondary beneficiaries.
A will can be as simple as a sentence scribbled on a napkin, as long as it is signed in the presence of two people who witness it and sign it with you. Additionally, you can get it notarized, but it is not required in Ohio.
''It just needs to be a statement of expression and signed and witnessed properly,'' said Woodburn.
Or it can be a legal document, drawn up by a lawyer. Woodburn said he's not familiar with do-it-yourself software programs and said there could be nuances that a program might miss.
A lawyer will usually charge between $500 to $700 for a will and accompanying estate-planning documents, such as a power of attorney, health-care power of attorney and living will. Just executing a will might cost in the range of $300 to $400 and if you need to update your will, that will probably vary by lawyer and what needs to be done.
Woodburn said he would be more comfortable with someone using a software program before going to someone who is actively soliciting will work.
Having some sort of will is important because it expresses your intentions rather than leaving it open ended, Woodburn said.
''If you don't have a will, you're leaving the distribution of your assets to the Ohio legislature. You're defaulting to what that statute says and you're also creating a lot of other problems if no one is designated to be the executor,'' he said.
Woodburn said he has had clients who don't want to discuss their will or death, fearing it will cause a death. Woodburn said he currently is working on a case where his client was a millionaire but didn't have an executor and had several rental properties. Now Woodburn has to file with the court to sell each property, adding time and taking money away from the estate.
Another issue is the potential burden you are placing on your relatives. Without a will, the estate is probated and the person has to post a bond as executor of up to two times the amount of the estate. A lot of times that can be expensive and the potential family member acting as the executor can't afford that. A will can waive that bonding requirement.
Copies of the will
Who should have a copy of your will? Woodburn said the lawyer should have a copy and you should keep a copy (with relatives knowing where to find it).
I told Woodburn that one of my sisters and I (we are executors for each other's wills) have exchanged copies of our wills.
Woodburn advises against giving a copy to anyone ahead of time.
''That tends to create problems,'' he said. ''People who may be named in the will may not be named in the final will. If they were sitting on a copy, you may be creating a situation for a will contest.''
Coming next week
I acknowledge it's a morbid topic, but there is more to say about this. I'll cover something else I did to make sure someone can take over my finances if something happens to me.
I'll also go over the other two documents that Woodburn said everyone should have, in addition to your will and one other optional one.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or email@example.com.