Creating a carefully crafted and detail-oriented estate plan is important for several reasons. One, the more decisions you make and clearly communicate to your loved ones, the fewer decisions they’ll have to make on their own while they deal with the stress of carrying out final arrangements and the pain that comes with loss. Without a clear plan, they may have to agonize as they desire to do what you would have wanted, but feel unsure what that preference would have been.
Another important potential benefit that comes with detailed planning is that it reduces the possibility for conflict. With anything that remains an uncertainty when you die, the possibility will exist that your loved ones may fall into disagreement about what should be done and what you would have wanted. Last summer, the case of Teffany Teresa Love and her final arrangements, which went all the way to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, offers some insight about this point.
What was the issue that took this woman’s loved ones to the probate court and eventually to the appeals court? It wasn’t her money, her house, her vehicles or her financial accounts. It was her headstone. On one side, her grave marker contained just her married name, “LOVE.” On the other side, it read “Teffany Teresa ‘Terri’ West.” The name West referred to a man named Bobby West, who claimed to be Terri’s biological father. Terri died with no estate plan; the stone and inscriptions were chosen by her husband and her two adult daughters. The problem arose when Terri’s adoptive father, Joseph Gullett, sought to take over administering Terri’s estate for the express purpose of changing her headstone to read “Teffany Teresa ‘Terri’ Gullett.” Ultimately, the appeals court sided against the adoptive father, concluding that the right to control the deceased woman’s headstone went, like the right to control her remains, from her husband (first) to her adult daughters (second). Since the husband and daughters all agreed, “West” remained on the stone.
This woman’s case presents two clear potential reasons for engaging in detailed estate planning including final arrangement planning. First, if you have loved ones who you know (or fear) may fight over issues like your final arrangements, you can possibly reduce the risk of quarrels, and potential litigation, by making those decisions yourself and putting them in your plan. Second, as the Tennessee court pointed out, the law recognizes a specific order of priority in terms of who makes your final arrangement decisions. If you do not want your final arrangement decisions made by the person who would stand to hold that role according to your state’s laws, you need a plan where you make as many decisions as possible for yourself and, depending on your state’s laws, where you appoint the person you desire to serve as your agent for final arrangement decisions.
Summary: There are several things about estate planning that are true far more often than they are not. If you procrastinate, you may run out of time, because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring. If you fail to create a plan, the government will make one for you — and it may be one that you wouldn’t like. Once you make a plan, you have to maintain it in order to be sure it will work as best as it can. A properly created and maintained plan can give you a great deal of control over your affairs, even after you’re gone. Last, but not least, if that benefit of control is important to you, the more thought and detail you put into your plan, the more benefit it will give you.