By Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach®
I grew up in a household of five girls in Los Angeles, where each of us had nicknames and reputations within the family and among our friends. The five of us were all one or two years apart: Cheryl was the oldest; then Deborah; next was Denise; then came me; and my youngest sister, Hope, was the baby of the family. My older sister, Debby, was known as the Goody Two Shoes of the family.
Debby was kind-hearted and generous to everyone; the kind of girl who would literally give someone the shirt off her back or her last dollar. She loved to help other people. And she excelled in school too, where she was a great student who aced her exams and got top SAT scores. No wonder, then, that her nickname was “Debby Do Right.” It was a moniker that stuck throughout her life, even into her 40s, when she planted trees to help the environment, volunteered to rehabilitate a wheelchair bound little girl; and participated in numerous political campaigns to encourage people to vote.
Sadly, Debby was just 49 years old and had an 11-year-old daughter, when she passed away suddenly and completely unexpectedly.
Life is Not Promised
Since she had been perfectly healthy, Debby’s death threw our entire family into a tailspin that would last for what seemed like forever. In reality, it took more than six months, two autopsies, and a microscopic analysis of the tissues in her body for medical authorities to finally determine a cause of death: ethylene glycol poisoning.
As of this writing, it’s now been nearly four years since her passing; she died on Dec. 30, 2014. While I still mourn her loss, I now reflect mostly on all the wonderful memories I have of Debby, including all the good things she did and the positive impact she made on the world.
In retrospect, I’m not surprised that my big sister made our time of bereavement a bit easier to handle by doing so many things right well ahead of her death. In particular, several years before her passing, Debby created a last will and testament. She named a guardian for her daughter. And she had life insurance.
Even in death, just as she had done in life, “Debby Do Right” lived up to her reputation for always doing the right thing.
Most Americans Don’t Have a Will
As a money coach, I recognize that my sister Debby was the exception, rather than the rule. Various studies show that roughly 70% of adults in America do not have a written will. Even many celebrities including musicians Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain–have died without leaving a will behind. It’s easy to see why this crucial task often goes undone.
People procrastinate about all sorts of money matters: from comparison shopping for lower rates on cable TV to creating a budget spreadsheet that keeps their finances on track. So most people certainly don’t want to spend time thinking about their own mortality. I get that.
But having a will is vitally important and should not be put off.
What Happens When You Die Without a Will
A will is a basic estate-planning document that lays out your wishes for how your assets should be distributed, and how your minor child or children should be cared for in your absence. If you should pass away and you have not left behind a written will, then the state gets to step in and decide what should happen to your property and your child. Needless to say, the state’s decisions may not be what you would have chosen. That’s just one reason why having a will is imperative.
The will lets you express your desires and convey those wishes to your loved ones left behind.A will can also cut down on the decision-making or potential infighting that can occur among family members when a person dies. And you don’t need to be rich to make a will or to need one. For example, your will can specify who should get your furniture, electronics, clothing or jewelry. Even if you only have something of sentimental value, like your wedding ring, your will can dictate where it should go.
By using a will, you can also explain (in written form or via video) why you are bequeathing certain assets to specific individuals, or why you want a certain person to take guardianship or custody of your child or children. Such declarations in your will can eliminate or reduce challenges to your will.
A Final Gift to Family
Finally, a will can cut out confusion and unnecessary stress for your grieving heirs, since they won’t have to guess or debate what your final wishes were. Case in point: if you want to be cremated, you can say so in your will; alternatively, if you’d prefer a traditional burial service, that can likewise be outlined in your last will and testament.
Even though her death was a shock and very painful to endure, I’m glad that my sister Debby left a detailed will that helped guide our family in making her final arrangements, dealing with her daughter, and handling Debby’s overall affairs.
I’m sure she didn’t know it when drew up her will, but by taking that all-important step, Debby Do Right wasn’t just being her normal responsible self, she was giving our family one of her very last gifts.
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