The dramatic reading. The lawyer opens his briefcase or top desk drawer and takes out the folded parchment paper. It is the Will. All the family is there. Some look worried. Some look smug. Some look guilty. (Some are.)
The lawyer begins. "I, Now-Dead-Patriarchal-or-Matriarchal-Figure, declare this to be my Last Will and Testament. I bequeath [some small item of nominal significance] to [the lowly servant or nobody-relative]. And then the fun begins. The money goes to one child. The property goes to another. The business to another. The spouse takes (or is left out of the mix) in a big way.
The meeting descends into chaos. There is an argument. Then a fight. A stabbing or a gunshot. A plot twist. One of the daughters was abused. One of the sons is illegitimate. One of the others is a complete fraudster. The spouse is the murderer. And we can't wait for episode two.
This delightful scene is what most people rely on for their knowledge of estate planning. "Of course," everyone assumes, "this estate planning thing is only needed by crazy rich people with giant estates." Wrong. But that's what we see. "We probably need a will," everyone thinks. Often wrong. But that's all they've ever seen or heard about. Ever.
When was the last time you heard about a living trust in a movie or popular TV show? Oh, that's right. Never. Why? Because when you have a living trust done right, there is absolutely no drama. None.
With a trust, here's what happens: You die. Your successor trustee signs a form. And now all of your stuff is immediately controlled by those you decided to give access to in the first place. Want your kids to have it? Done. Want to control what it gets used for? Done. Want to support a charity or a cause? Done. No court. No conflict. No delay. Private. Protected. Secure. Less tax, and often NO tax. And so many fun options so you can accomplish YOUR goals for your loved ones. Or someone else. Or whomever you want.
A trust must be terribly expensive, you think. No, actually, what you see on TV is what's terribly expensive. Because in real life, there's no dramatic reading. With a will, you go to court. That's what probate is—the administration of a will (if there is one) in court or the application of default rules (if there isn't). Court is expensive. Conflict is expensive. Delay is expensive.Taxes are expensive.
All played out in the public eye, with or without a will. Think Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or most recently, Aretha Franklin. (Talk about drama? Do a Google search for the wills of famous people . . . .)
The dramatic reading of a Will? A myth. Ah, but wonderful entertainment.
Learning about and using a living trust? No drama. But very effective. (And cost-effective, too!)
We bought my daughter a T-shirt a few years back. It read, "Keep the drama on the stage!" You don't want to be a part of the drama. Or the cause of it. And it's easy to avoid.