Writing a will can be unpleasant, but is worth the time

Tim Grant
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Eighty-six-year-old Norman Clark saved up a tidy sum during his career as an independent plumber before he retired following a stint as chief plumbing inspector for Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh region, and he’s not about to be like some people he has heard about who die without a will.

“It’s a responsible thing to do,” the he said. “At my age, you’d be crazy not to have a will. Younger people die without a will and it’s a big mess.”

He mainly wants to make sure his wife, Sarah, 87, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is cared for the rest of her life from the income earned by his investments. If his wife dies before him, Clark has a plan for distributing his assets that will minimize the chance of family squabbles over his estate, which he estimates is worth $3 million.

This will be the fourth time he has revised his will since he was about 35 years old. This time around, he is readjusting the percentages that relatives will receive. Some who have gained more financial success will receive a lesser percentage and others will receive higher percentages, he said.

Contemplating one’s own demise is not what many people would consider a fun activity.

But the time and energy spent writing a will — regardless of how young or how broke the person may be — means being able to choose what eventually happens to financial assets and personal items. It also could make the difference between war and peace among surviving family members, not to mention avoiding having sizable chunks of the estate eaten up by legal fees.

When the rock musician Prince died earlier this year from an accidental overdose, it provided a cautionary tale for what it means to die without having a valid last will and testament.

His death in April at age 57 left an estate estimated at $300 million. More than two dozen potential heirs came out of the woodwork to claim a slice of the fortune. After months of legal wrangling, the judge in the case has narrowed the number to eight — six of whom must go through genetic testing to prove they are children of the musician’s deceased father.

“People think they will live longer than they end up living,” said E. David Margolis, a trusts and estates attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Pittsburgh. “A will is something that is easily put off and unfortunately it can be put off until the person passes.

“Sometimes people have to make very tough decisions, and they are prone to put off making those decisions.”

A 2012 survey by, a legal services website, found 50 percent of Americans with children do not have a will. The top three reasons were procrastination, a belief they don’t need one and cost.

Minneapolis-based Allianz Life found in its 2012 American Legacies study that 53 percent of people in their survey who were older than 72 placed a high value on minimizing conflict between family members when they set about planning a successful transfer of inheritance. More than a third — 38 percent — of elders said making sure their wishes were fully carried out was important.

“By virtue of their age and getting closer to the end of their longevity, passing away is more on their minds,” said Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer insights at Allianz. “They want to make sure specific personal items go to people who are important to them, and they want to make sure their decisions don’t cause conflict for their children or heirs.”