One of the biggest problems we run into when planning for and managing wealth after death is not that people don’t have a plan or even want to plan, it’s that no one can execute the plan. Why? Because to execute the deceased’s plan, we need a signed will. Often there is a will, but it is not signed.
Sometimes the printed document is found on their desk or neatly filed, but unsigned. That small step of putting a signature on a document (with witnesses present), had them stalled indefinitely.
What could cause this procrastination? An internet search on the topic revealed thousands of articles with rational reasons why people should have signed wills, but nothing on why people don’t have signed wills. I’m left to surmise from general theories about why people procrastinate.
One of the general reasons for procrastination is that people convince themselves that the event is highly improbable. This is the kind of rationale explaining why a fit young man would procrastinate on a prostate check-up. But it doesn’t explain why people will put off signing a document for an event that is hundred percent certain! Even terminally ill people sometimes don’t sign despite our best efforts to nudge or persuade them.
We procrastinate on dealing with unpleasant subjects, just like we may put off doing the dishes. Death is not a subject we talk about enough or manage well in Western culture. Most of our efforts are focused on denying or delaying death, not on dying well. I suspect the misplaced loci of our focus has to do with our difficulty in facing death - the finality of it and the admission of our own frailty.
Perhaps it could be indecision. People often want a will to take care of all future eventualities, but a will is a document for today, not for situations that may occur in the future. It is a document that instructs the executor on what to do should you die now. It can be changed at any time. This is something worth remembering – that it’s not a commitment for the rest of your life.
Nevertheless, a will is also a document that may only be executed way into the future and most of us find it difficult to imagine the future. It’s why most people put off financial planning. Until they can start imagining themselves as retired, they procrastinate on planning for it, by which time it might be too late.
Sometimes people just may not be sure that they have made the best decisions. Specifically, with complex families or estates - it can be difficult to weigh up the pros and cons of decisions. The balance between fairness and tax, the needs of the current owners and future generations or children from different marriages are all thorny issues. This lingering uncertainty will stall some people, often forever.
It may be that the estate planning professional did not understand the brief or that the client did not divulge the truth. It often happens that shameful facts are left out, and then the will is not appropriate.
It may be more mundane. Some of us just don’t like admin. The process of putting a signature on a piece of paper requires a connection between a printer and a computer, ink in the printer and a working printer!
And of course, it’s emotional. It’s about loss. Regret. Fear. Even revenge or guilt. The whole range of emotions around our values and our desire to leave a legacy.
Whatever, the reasons, we should do better to help people jump over this hurdle by having better conversations about death and dying and planning for it. If we don’t deal with the emotion or the likely objections in our planning, it will likely rear its head and stall the execution.
If you’re one of those people who have an unsigned will somewhere, perhaps I’ve missed the reason why you haven’t signed it. I’d love to know. But please do whatever it takes to sign a will!
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