Procrastination only puts off need to organize estate, write will

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- Most Americans procrastinate when it comes to putting their estates in order and writing wills.

''It's natural to resist thinking about dying,'' said Adriane Berg, a New York lawyer who specializes in trusts and estates. ''But look -- is getting a flu shot pleasant? No. Do people do it? Yes, because it's good for them. The same is true with estate planning.''

Planning is especially imperative with the leading edge of the Baby Boomer wave hitting 55 this year and approaching retirement. Older couples need to think about transferring their possessions to heirs with a minimum bite from estate and gift taxes. Younger Boomers, meanwhile, must worry about protecting small businesses or providing for children should something happen to them.

Terri Getman, a vice president for Prudential Insurance in Minneapolis, said there's also renewed interest in estate planning because of congressional action this year to reduce -- and ultimately repeal -- federal taxes on many estates.

''This legislation could result in major changes for existing estate documents,'' Getman said. She added that many Boomers also are beginning to realize they have more money than they ever expected in assets including their houses and their IRA and 401(k) retirement savings plans.

As a result, ''a lot of people who normally wouldn't think of estate planning are starting to do so,'' Getman said.

What a family needs to do about estate planning changes with age, marital status, health and wealth.

Bud and Phyllis Carroll, a couple in their 60s in Cupertino, Calif., had their first will prepared about 10 years ago after Bud was told he needed heart bypass surgery.

''We didn't have a will,'' Phyllis Carroll recalled. ''We felt that before he went into surgery, it would be a good idea to have one, as a precaution.''

Bud survived and thrived, and now is thinking about retiring from his job as a sales manager, so the couple has had a new will prepared that's more complex. It contains a trust that will allow both of them to take advantage of the federal estate tax exemption and preserve more of their assets for their son and daughter. There's also a health care directive so medical decisions will be made according to their wishes if they're incapacitated.

''I sleep better at night,'' Phyllis Caroll said. ''The kids are taken care of. And they know where everything is.''

Bob Green, a financial adviser in Santa Cruz, Calif., said people generally are motivated to write wills by ''big life events like the birth of a child, marriage, getting an inheritance, a financial windfall or a sudden shocker from your doctor.''

He believes, too, that even people without a lot of money should consider having wills drafted.

''Just who is going to get the family treasures that were passed down from your grandmother?'' he said. ''And everybody has household effects, cars, bank accounts. Who's going to get those? If you don't have a will, the state is going to decide.''

Green also said making bequests through a will ''can cut out a lot of the contentiousness that can tear families apart'' if they start fighting over estates.

Still, people procrastinate even when they know they should get their wills on paper.

''It's on our list,'' said Jay Schmitt, a 35-year-old actuary from Atlanta. ''But there are a lot of things on our list right now.''

At the top is daughter Emily, born six months ago.

''I've been focused on things like getting a college education program set up for her, and arranging day care,'' Schmitt said. He added: ''I shudder to think that my wife Wendy and I could both die in a car wreck tomorrow, and all of our assets would be tied up in probate. That should be enough to get me off my rear and get something done.''

Schmitt said he already has a ''handshake deal'' with his sister-in-law to be Emily's guardian should catastrophe strike. ''We want to formalize that and make sure that if Emily went to Wendy's sister, there would be money along with her to cover her needs,'' he said.

Bob Littell, a life insurance and financial planning expert in Atlanta, believes estate planning is tougher for Baby Boomers than earlier generations because their lives are more complex: Many don't have children. Others are divorced, remarried and have children who are hers, his and theirs. Gay and lesbian couples want to take care of each other. A lot of Boomers have aging parents who might need financial help. There's more interest in charitable giving.

''Boomers don't like doing anything the same way everybody else has done it,'' Littell said. ''That means we're going to have to have creative estate planning to deal with the creative dreaming that I think will be a bigger part in the future.''

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On the Net:

www.Prudential.com/estateplan

Green: www.bgmoney.com

Littell: www.bob-littell.com

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