Long day ahead

I’m going to spend most of it locked in a small car. I’m driving to Minneapolis to deliver a friend & colleague to the airport so she can fly off to a new job, but we’re also taking advantage of our day on the road to hit up some grocery stores and stock up, now that our local grocery store is an obliging nexus of disease, and we’re going to deliver a high-quality mask to our son to reduce the chance we might have to attend his funeral. We’ve got a lot to do so that once we get home this evening we can batten down the hatches and not emerge again for a while.

Oh, also, in the near future I have to write a will. Maybe I can short circuit a lot of flailing about in the internet by just asking here — what’s a quick cheap way to get an official, legal document that says when I drop dead, everything goes to my wife and kids? As a bonus, being able to raise a figurative middle finger to the government and institutions that want to throw me into association with 1500+ young people in the middle of a pandemic would be nice. I want to make sure my family are as well taken care of as possible, while also communicating a properly vengeful attitude.

You all let me know about that when I get back, because I’ve got the latest Journal of Arachnology and a couple of papers on spider eyes that I’ll be reading when it’s my wife’s turn to drive. Hmmm, maybe if I had eight eyes I could do my reading while driving…


  1. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Please spend a bit (shouldn’t be over a thou) to have a real lawyer draw up a “family trust” into which you and the wife put all your assets, with both of you as trustees. This completely obviates the will and probate: whichever of you passes first, the other remains trustee in full control of the estate. The document also lists one or more “successor trustees” (presumably a child but not necessarily) with instructions as detailed as you like, on how to liquidate and disburse the trust after both primary trustees have died. Don’t try to do this with internet site boilerplate documents; get it done by a genuine lawyer. Then you can relax about all that shit.

  2. says

    This is not legal advice for any particular situation. (You can tell what my background is from that disclaimer.)

    Do not, do not, do not use the ‘net as your resource for a cheap and effective way to get a will done. You won’t regret it; your heirs will.

    Instead, pay the $17.49 ebook/$19.99 paper cost of Nolo’s Quick and Legal Will Book, available here (I get nothing for this, no conflict of interest here!). The bonus is that you can also use this same resource to prepare a will for your daughter, because it’s got reputable material for all states. (Your son is covered; by definition, since he’s deployable, he already has a will that has been prepared by the JAG office.)

    The proportion of online wills and forms that actually meet requirements in states other than California and New York is, umm, under 50%… and I’m including the overpriced “big services” (you know who you are!) in that. LZ, for example, assumes that every state requires two and exactly two witnesses… but some require three, and its packages don’t mak that clear. The NOLO book does.

    Finally, two other items —

    (1) You’ll need to have a notary to make the will binding. If you’re a member of a credit union, call in (they’re highy accommodating); if you use a bank, you can try there.

    (2) Do not store your executed will in a safe deposit box. Safe deposit boxes are sealed on the death of a holder, and can only be opened with a court order. And getting that court order requires proof that the person requesting it is authorized, which is a circular inquiry without the will! Many states have a system allowing testators to lodge their will before death with their local court, for a small fee (less than a safe deposit box, in fact).

  3. asclepias says

    I remember reading somewhere (eons ago, when I was taking paralegal classes) that it is possible to write your own will, but I don’t remember all of the specifics. Also, I drove out north of town with the dog yesterday to let her run around. It’s been several weeks since I’ve gone anywhere in my car, and I discovered that I have become much less comfortable with driving. When it started raining, I briefly considered taking the highway south of town to see if I could find someplace less soggy, but discarded the idea. Not only do I not really feel comfortable going 80 (the speed limit on tje highways here) there is highway construction down I-25 to I don’t know where. I haven’t figured out where it ends yet.

  4. says

    Arthropod eyes are different from ours. What would their written words look like? Our eyes naturally focus on individual letters and words. Their eyes see everywhere all at the same time. Maybe some sort of two dimensional construct? Sci-Fi ideas.

  5. Lyn M: Totally Knows What This Nym Means says

    A consultation for a will should not cost $1000, that is just for a trust. It might be worth a legal consultation to make sure there are no hidden traps before you do your own will. Any decent lawyer will quote a fee before the consultation if you outline your wishes. Since real estate can be tricky in the context of a will, I do urge you to consider a consultation.
    I am not anti-store forms. My grandfather did his on a store form and it worked without problem. The real messes arise if a will ages a lot, say 10 years with no review, and the contemplated situation is no longer present. Also, if there is a change in the family, and the will is not reviewed, problems can arise. If things are stable, you should be OK for a few years.
    I am not familiar with the book recommended (I am Canadian), but often these books do cover simple estates and straight forward plans such as the one you outlined here.

  6. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Some assets don’t need a will to be transferred upon your death. Your house is likely jointly owned with Mary, with the surviving spouse will automatically getting full ownership. Life insurance policies can list beneficiaries. Same for some pensions and IRAs.
    The first step is to make a list of assets to find out what your net worth is. Good luck.

  7. whheydt says

    Having been through the mess after my mother died (it involved real estate in three different states), I will stand and say that–yes–put everything in a family trust. It will save your heirs an immense amount of money (in my case, the California part cost over $11,000 because California gives lawyers handling this stuff “statutory fees” and it was a complete and utter rip off). This despite that my mother had a complete, uncontested will, that was done for her by a then-retired Oregon State Supreme Court justice.

    As for notaries… (At least in California.) 1. The notary cannot have a fiduciary interest in the document they are notarizing (as in my daughter, who is a notary, cannot do so for anything involving my estate), and 2. pretty much every real estate office has at least on on hand and they are much more willing to notarize documents that your own bank is.

  8. Some Old Programmer says

    A note of caution about trusts: they don’t necessarily obviate a will. If you happen to miss re-titling an asset, it’s best to have a “pour-over” will that will drop the ownership into the trust. Some assets you may not want to re-title; e.g. our estate attorney advised against re-titling our cars because it might attract litigation in event of an accident. Also (in our state at least, IANAL, so YMMV) guardianship for minor children is specified in a will; a trust isn’t appropriate for that purpose.

  9. Rich Woods says

    All these legal complications. I’m just going to die and let my brother sort it out. He may as well work for the money.

    (He laughed when I told him this.)

  10. JustaTech says

    If your university has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) you might already have “coverage” to talk to a lawyer about a will. EAPs usually cover a few visits for a lot of things (lawyers, therapists, financial planners, childcare/elder care), so if you’ve got it make use of it. It’s confidential and not reported to your employer.

    My whole family was teasing my eldest aunt and uncle for only now, since they’ve retired, getting around to making a will. Not revising their will, but making it in the first place. They’re both lawyers.
    What’s that saying about the shoemaker’s children going barefoot?

  11. doumakes says

    I second @Jaws’s recommendation of nolo.com. I did my will with them. (I’m not dead yet, so have no observational evidence about its quality.)

    At least in the state of Iowa, you don’t need a notary to make the will good. It just needs people to witness your signature on it. Mine is “self-proving” (no need for probate to verify the will) because I and the witnesses signed in front of a notary.

    @Jaws is also right about not storing it in a safe deposit box. Your heirs need to be able to put their hands on it. Mine is in the freezer. (Seriously. The contents of the freezer are going to be the last thing to burn in the event of a fire, and probably the fire department will have things under control before it comes to that.)

    If you die intestate (without a will) then state law governs what happens, and you might not be happy with the result. The state might, for example, sell the old home place for cash to pay debts, leaving your heirs with the leftover money but without the one thing you wanted them to inherit.

  12. ANB says

    In a pinch (i.e., now), a holographic Will will suffice (check your state’s laws). You’ll at least have one while you proceed to follow the suggestions above.

  13. says

    I also agree w/ Jaws. Nolo.com has great resources. I created a revocible living trust for spouse & self years ago. We also have pourover wills, and the appropriate living wills for our state. Some docs need a notary, others not. They will explain clearly what to do & what your choices are!

  14. blf says

    Whilst I have no experience with wills or trust of my own (but do concur that a will is highly recommenced whether or not there is a trust), I also suggest engaging a will- (and trust-?)knowledgeable lawyer. And, VERY MUCH, DO NOT keep the will in place where it may not be immediately accessible to your intended heirs. (Also, consider the remote possibility Mary or other heirs may predecease you, or also unfortunately die at broadly the same time.)

    E.g., a safe-deposit box in your own name, or in the names of you and Mary, is no good: You die, the box is locked. Nor is a box in Mary’s name, or in the names of her or you: She predeceases you, or you both die at the same time, the box is locked. Sadly, the law can be incredibly complicated (blame centuries of shenanigans), so a lawyer with expertise in the area is recommended.

  15. says

    You also need a Medical Durable Power of Attorney and Advanced Directive. Trying to decide what to do when you are incapacitated is too late.

  16. psanity says

    Yes, Nolo Press. Best legal resources, have been for decades. You can get a package that includes instructions and forms for wills, living trusts, powers of attorney for financial and medical, everything you need, and it is explained well and includes whatever quirks in the law your state may have. Absolutely worth getting even if you’re going to get a lawyer, because you’ll know what the things are and how you want them to work.

  17. charley says

    @ 2 Jaws
    There’s a promo code at the site you linked to save an additional 40% as well. Just that much more moolah for my lucky heirs.

  18. says

    Follow-up notes:

    Our Gracious Host cannot use a holographic (handwritten) will — he’s in one of the states in which they’re not recognized, and more particularly he has an interest in real property which would not be sufficient in many of the states that do recognize a holographic will.

    I say no, no, and yet again no to anyone who claims that trusts are the universal solution. Further, the exact way that the ownership of his property is controlled matters; for example, if the bank has a deed of trust instead of a mortgage, a trust wouldn’t work in the first place! I would gladly eviscerate for the home audience every stiffs-and-gifts lawyer/consultant who claims that trusts work for everything. They don’t. I can name half a dozen prominent authors whose works stopped appearing, in print and elsewhere, after their respective deaths because trusts muck things up for intellectual property… because some of their heirs have been clients of mine at one time or another. Trusts work best with non-jointly-owned property that must be conserved either because heirs are not of age (or are otherwise not legally competent) or to ensure that restrictive covenants are followed. Otherwise… not so much. Trusts are descendants of tax-evasion systems. Not avoidance, which is fully legal; outright evasion.

    And, finally, a little bit of relief. It’s easy to change a will later, if/when the money situation (or whatever) changes. It’s really important to have a will right now; even an imperfect will is, except when dealing with intellectual property and inchoate rights, oodles better than nothing.

  19. kaleberg says

    Odds are you don’t need a will. Your wife will simply inherit everything. If she dies as well, your children will inherit. It’s more complicated if you have ex-wives and children by more than one marriage or you are worried about estate taxes. If the idea of having a will is comforting, go for NOLO. They have pretty good generic forms and keep up to date on state law. They are an anti-ripoff.

    Usually, you just need to sign the will in the presence of two (or three) witnesses who then sign attesting to the fact that they saw you sign. That may be a COVID risk. If all goes well, I’ll be long dead when the first witnessed-but-from-six-feet away case goes to trial. Do make sure you sign. My father out-law – we’re not married – initialed each page, and two witnesses signed attesting that they saw him sign, but he never actually did, so he died intestate and they committed perjury. That was so like him. It was almost like he was with us in the room when the clerk told us. Luckily, the only thing this changed was administratrix instead of executrix on the letters testamentary.

    (I’ve been an executor too many times. I must have a responsible looking face. At one point my sister suggested I put up a shingle as Dead-R-Us.)

  20. kaleberg says

    The safe deposit box conundrum is usually resolved by having a representative of the court present when the box is opened, sometimes along with a guy with a drill. Only the will, if present, can be removed. In real life, there is usually some second person who has access to the box and he or she slips in an cleans it out except for the will which will then be found at the formal opening. This is usually when the bearer bonds would disappear back in the days of bearer bonds and coupon clipping. An IRS auditor I knew, back when the IRS had auditors, told me that bearer bonds are the secret of immortality, since they never appear in the safe deposit box of anyone who has died.

    I really have handled too many estates.

  21. says

    Someone is wrong on the internet and I must correct them.

    Imagine this in bold, flashing, 72-point type:


    A trust may avoid probate taxes, and may limit contested probate proceedings. It may.

    And in answer to a number of people who have fallen into the inductive fallacy above, a trust is usually not sufficient by itself to pass real property, such as a house, without creating an encumbrance on further use/devise/sale of that real property. And intestate succession (that’s what passing of property without a will is called in the US everywhere other than Louisiana) is worse — much worse — when a real-property interest is involved. Should PZ die without a will, it’s entirely possible that the bank, the state, etc. would allow Mary to take possession of the house. There Will Be Lawyers thereafter, however; and There Will Be Needless Legal Fees and Clouds on the Title at the next transfer.

    If you’re as old as PZ is or I am, you remember the old Fram Oil Filter commercials, don’t you? “This is a Fram Oil Filter. It costs about $3. Change it every time you change your oil or… This is a new engine. It costs about $800.” Now, using the magic of bad math, substitute “simple will” for “oil filter” and “heirs’ expenses years later selling property” for “new engine,” and multiply by 2.7 times the consumer price index change since 1970 (that’s one estimate of the amount by which professional fees have, on average, exceeded “inflation”) when those commercials were running on every sports broadcast, and in Kent there only would have been five — six on a very, very good atmospheric-condition day — channels to watch, and no VCR, so….

    tl;dr version: Please, please, please stop advocating solutions other than making a will: You’re wrong, and you’re several powers of ten times wrong if there’s any real property involved.

  22. says

    As someone who frequently works with legal documents (including real estate) in Minnesota, here are some thoughts (IANAL, etc.):

    I would get a lawyer involved, if you can afford it. They’ll be able to advise you best how to set things up to set things up so they’ll pass to the people you want to have them.

    Barring that… in Minnesota, real estate is automatically assumed to be jointly owned between spouses. And if you and Mary were married when you bought the house, it should already be titled in both your names, so whichever of you dies first, the other will still own the house. Even if you weren’t married when you bought the house, your spouse will still inherit your house. If both of you were to die, the estate will have to go through probate. It’s required if the estate is over $10,000 (I think). Your will can designate a personal representative for your estate and give guidance for distribution of your assets, but ultimately it’s up to the personal representative to make those decisions.

    For deposit accounts (checking, saving, certificates of deposit), retirement accounts, and similar accounts, it’s going to depend on how the account is titled. If the account is titled jointly, the other person/people on the account will still own it. If you’ve designated a POD (payable on death), then that will take effect after you die, bypassing probate. If the account is titled just in your name as an individual, then it’s more complicated – usually it goes to the estate. I recommend going over these types of accounts to make sure they’re titled the way you want.

    It’s not quick, it’s not easy, but it’s good that you’re working on it before (hopefully long before) it’s needed.

  23. says

    Just wanted to add a minor point: most of the wills I’ve seen have required two witnesses AND a notary. Often, I’ll be the notary and two of my coworkers will be witnesses. Also, spouses will sometimes get their wills done together so that they reflect each other, and then they’ll come in together to get their signatures witnessed and notarized at the same time. If you go the attorney route, you might want to think about doing something like that.