Will do: Make an important long-term plan in 2021

January 13, 2021

UM-Dearborn financial planning experts share five things people can do to ensure wishes are followed when it comes to wills, planned gifts, advanced directives and estate planning.

Photo of estate planning documents
Photo of estate planning documents

It’s 2021. Goals are set by many as we enter a  new year — among resolutions, getting organized is often at the top.

That can be getting the clutter out of the closet or changing up your email settings. But getting organized can goes beyond that too. Even with good news and hope (thanks, COVID vaccine), there’s still a bit of uncertainty going into 2021. Because of this, people have been planning ahead and getting their personal affairs in order, like writing a last will and testament, in larger numbers than previously. And younger people — even when most Americans don’t feel like wills are needed until age 35 — say they’re more focused on sharing their wishes too. According to a LegalZoom survey, 34% of young people (18-34) said they created a Last Will and Testament in 2020.

Michelle Fallscheer, senior planned gifts officer
Michelle Fallscheer, senior planned gifts officer

Since the topic isn’t a conversation that typically comes up with family or friends and it can be a bit confusing, Reporter reached out to financial planning and legal minds to learn the need-to-knows about wills, planned gifts and estate planning.

Attorney David Yesh (‘83) and UM-Dearborn Senior Director of Leadership and Planned Giving Michelle Fallscheer talked about their experiences when it comes to planning, what they’ve learned, and a few easy (and sometimes even free) steps ton take.

Write what you want so others won’t have to guess.

Attorney Yesh, is a senior vice president at Marsh (the world’s largest insurance broker) and previously served as a lawyer while in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps. While in the Navy he prepared numerous wills and other end of life documents for service members and their families, and continues to provide advice to others today. Yesh believes it is important to write down your wishes so you know things are handled how you’d want them to be. It takes out the guesswork.

“My father passed away in 2020. We were able to focus on grieving because he talked about everything in advance. I knew what he wanted because he’s the one who made the legal and financial decisions,” Yesh says. “Tell people what you want now. Not only will it give you peace of mind, it will do the same for your loved ones and help avoid disagreements, hard feelings, and wasted time if things end up in court.”

Fallscheer added that without a will or trust in place, decisions are made through the state.

“Without a will, assets are frozen until the court system combs through every detail of the estate,” Fallscheer said. “The court then applies its state intestacy laws and makes a decision regarding where a person’s possessions will be allocated.” In other words, if you don’t have a will, the state will make one for you.

Realize it’s about more than money.

Have pets? Say where they should live. Social media accounts? Say what you want to happen to them. A modest savings account? Share if you’d like it to go to the charity that you volunteer at instead of your next of kin.

David Yesh
David Yesh

“Even if you don’t feel like you don’t have many assets, still write down what you want to happen for what you do have,” Yesh said. “I’m a firm believer that every adult should have a will and an advanced directive at a minimum.”

And if your situation is simple — for example, not having multiple children or property — Yesh said you can go online for the paperwork and do one for free. Another thing that makes things a little easier for Michigan residents? You can also handwrite a will. “Unlike most other states, Michigan wills may be handwritten,”  said Fallscheer, who’s worked in the non-profit estate planning for 20 years.

But whether you do the written work yourself— and it must be written, not spoken — or are guided by a professional, Fallscheer said there are some rules for it to be binding.

“In Michigan, will laws require the testator to be at least 18 years old and that it be signed by two competent witnesses.”

List one decision maker.

Many families have more than one child. To make things “fair,” Yesh said people often list all the children as will executors. That might work in some situations, but what happens if there are two children and they don’t agree?

“Well, you end up in court for a probate judge to decide, which is what you are trying to avoid in the first place,” he said.

To circumvent that, Yesh suggests choosing the person who you believe would be the best for the role. Yesh shared that he’s one of six children and his parents chose him to oversee their estate and make medical decisions because of his experience.

However, there’s not a rule saying the same person needs to be on all accounts: If a trusted family member is good with finances, have them oversee estate distribution. If you admire someone’s caregiving skills or they have a healthcare background, list that person on the medical advance directive. 

“Different people have different skill sets. This is not playing favorites. It’s choosing the best person for the job.”

But no matter what you decide, be forthcoming with your family.

“To avoid surprises later you should have regular talks about your estate plan with your loved ones, as well as anyone who will be involved in carrying out your intentions, such as the executors or agents of any of your plans,” said Fallscheer.

Let people know if you are interested in making a gift to a non-profit.

Maybe you want to make an estate gift to the animal shelter where you adopted your furry family member, the college that connected you to your first job or the nonprofit that’s working hard to improve lives in your community. 

Fallscheer said if someone is interested in leaving a bequest (or any other estate gift option) to a non-profit, the first step is to speak with your financial adviser or attorney. Although it’s not the reason people make planned gifts, it’s good to see if there are any tax benefits. For example, Fallscheer said a gift of stock can have large tax incentives.

Then reach out to the non-profit of your choice. “It is about the legacy that an individual wishes to leave behind. It’s a simple process that starts with a conversation to find out where you want to make a difference in the organization,” said Fallscheer, noting that you get to decide what type of impact you can have and the area you are interested in supporting — an example would be scholarships. “A planned gift allows your personal values to make a profound lasting impact. It allows an individual to give in the future, and it will not affect their current financial situation.”

If you need to help a loved one with planning, ask ‘What is your goal?’

Yesh said talking about wills, advanced directives, trusts and estate planning, can be difficult conversations to have with parents or loved ones you are caring for. He suggests starting the conversation with questions like “What is your goal?” or “What is it that you want to happen?”

“Do not ask about the transfer of the money. Let them bring that up through answering those questions,” Yesh said.

If you still get resistance, Yesh said it’s ok to let them know that you are asking so you can do what they want, which eases your burden of having to guess. He said that gives an understanding of why you want to know and offers a pathway to discussion. “Tell people what you want now when you are healthy and of sound mind. And have them tell you while then can,” Yesh said. “Be transparent so your wishes are known and others can see them through. Estate planning is not a scary or bad thing — instead of associating it with death, we really should see it as a part of life.”

If you have questions, please contact Fallscheer or Yesh. Yesh also writes a blog that covers a variety of financial planning topics.