by Contributing Writer, Sheyna Burt
Full disclosure: I am thirty-seven, I own a law practice and a home, I frequently advise clients about the importance of proactive planning and yet I still don’t have a will. I don’t specialize in estate planning, but I understand the necessity of a will and as someone who claims to be a grown-up, I have no excuse for my oversight. So when I was asked to review The Easy Will and Living Will Kit: 3 Easy Steps to Complete Your Will, Living Will and Powers of Attorney by Attorney Joy. S Chambers it seemed like an opportunity to address something that many of us dread undertaking – the formal capturing of our wishes for our estates and our health care while we still have the capacity to make these decisions.
I should have taken Attorney Chambers at her word when she incorporated “Easy” into the title not once, but twice. The prose often seems like her intended audience narrowly managed to pass their fifth-grade reading and writing exams. More alarmingly, in the name of generating forms that survive the smell test in most states (sorry about your Napoleonic Code roots, Louisiana), she creates templates with little room for customization.
At its core, the book focuses on three documents: “simple” wills, health care advance directives, and powers of attorney. It also discusses the endorsement, usage, and storage of the recommended forms. To her credit, Ms. Chambers is careful to remind the reader that the proposed papers are intended only for consumers in certain situations (e.g., estates valued at less than $1.5 million) and she expressly warns us to consult an attorney if we intend to deviate from her templates. What concerns me is just how restrictive those templates are. For instance, there is no room to itemize gifts or to do something as scandalous as disinherit the children of a sibling who predeceases you. In addition, in the case of beneficiaries who are minors, the author’s wills rely heavily on the use of trusts, but she spends virtually no time explaining how those complicated documents work. My biggest grievance with the forms proposed in this book is that in the name of creating stress-free estate-planning, the real decision-making is dumped on the executor or trustee. Rather than have the testator, the legal term for the person leaving a will, make difficult calls about how individual assets should be distributed, the executor/trustee is required to do the heavy lifting as the deceased relaxes in the relative comfort of the afterlife. Flexibility for the estate administrator is one thing; abdication of responsibility by the testator is another.
The book is not useless. I appreciated its discussion of the basic terminology and concepts relevant to estate planning. Further, the templates for health care advance directives and powers of attorney are drawn from reliable sources (the American Bar Association and National Conference of Commissioners respectively). Perhaps the book’s best attribute is that it encourages all of us to take steps to put our affairs in order. Because of the confined will templates I can’t recommend this book for someone hoping to draft his or her own documents, but I do believe that it is useful as a primer either to inform a conversation between a client and an experienced attorney or to provide a starting place for someone planning to do jurisdiction-specific research before drafting personalized documents.
And no, I still don’t have a will.
Reviewer Sheyna Burt is the owner of the Law Office of Sheyna Nicole Burt, PLC; chairs the Prince William County Arts Council; serves as chair of the Policies and Procedures Committee of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Prince William County Chapter; and acts as president and concertmistress of the Old Bridge Chamber Orchestra of Prince William County.