John O'Hara
John O'Hara

Will you, or won’t you?

In Charles Dickens’ 1853 novel “Bleak House,” a lawsuit drags on for years, ruining a family. The enduring trouble erupted because of lack of clarity in a man’s last will and testament.

That kind of tragedy still happens in more or less dramatic ways, so financial advisers and attorneys tell clients that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

According to a survey by AARP, 2 of 5 Americans over 45 don’t have a will. That’s troubling, especially if the will-less have children, said Ashley Micciche, a member of Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie and CEO of True North Retirement Advisors.

A will not only expresses wishes for money and belongings, but designates who will become the guardian of children if both parents die. 

“A lot of us want some sort of control, especially when you have kids,” said Micciche, a La Salle Prep graduate who went into the financial advising business with her father 11 years ago. Without a will, for example, children could end up with a grouchy uncle who doesn’t go to Mass anymore, Micciche said.

If there is no will, the family argues and the court decides, usually after a dragged out procedure. Micciche has seen grandparents arguing about who will care for the grandchildren. “It can be very painful for the kids,” she said.

Someone without children or without property can perhaps get by with a will done via a website like Legal Zoom, but most families should consult an estate planning attorney, said Jim Schaller, a member of St. Ignatius Parish and head of Summa Wealth Management.

“This is pretty serious stuff,” said Schaller. “If you have assets like a home or collectibles that don’t have a form that indicates who the beneficiary is, you need a will.”

Schaller has prepared taxes for an estate when there is no will. The surviving adult children, who got along well their entire lives, began to argue. “It can fracture a family,” Schaller said.

If you don’t have a will, that does not mean the government will take your money after you die. But your heirs will need to pay lawyers a handsome sum to sort everything out, said John O’Hara, an attorney and a member of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland.

Estates with no will need to go through probate, a court filing in which people with claims to the property make their case, as in “Bleak House.”

It’s cheaper and much less painful to pay an attorney to help you create a will and execute it properly, O’Hara said. He reminds clients that a will needs to be signed before two witnesses. A notarized will that is only notarized is worthless, O’Hara said. 

Nine times out of 10, the clients Micciche meets to plan their retirement have no will or have a will that has not been updated in decades.

“You should review your will annually,” said Schaller. “Maybe there is a beneficiary you no longer want on there. Maybe one child is disabled and you want the assets to go to that person.”

A will can set up ways to hand out inheritance slowly and with conditions. A son with addiction, for example, may need to go through treatment and drop clean urine samples before getting his monthly check from your estate.

You’ll certainly want to change the will if the person you chose as your personal representative is no longer alive or far away or if the relationship has soured, O’Hara said.

As people age, they may have heirlooms, like a rosary, that they know would be greatly appreciated by certain grandchildren, said Micciche. Such kindness will have a lifelong impact and should be added to the will, she added.

Along with the will, Micciche suggests, people should include a list of all insurance policies, bank accounts and investments. Include account numbers, passwords and names and phone numbers of bankers and advisers. Write a note giving your heirs authority to access your digital accounts. Put it all in a safe deposit box and let your heirs know how to find the key.  

Periodically, Micciche helps a widow who comes to her years after her husband’s death with a yellowed insurance policy found in the back of a drawer.

“The insurance company is not going to call you up and say, ‘Is your husband still alive? If not, we want to give you all this money,’” Micciche said.

“You want to make it easier when people are grieving,” Micciche said. “The last thing you want is for them to be figuring out where everything is.”