Jessica Rogers
Jessica Rogers
“Let’s choose executors, and talk of wills,” said William Shakespeare’s King Richard, a line sure to bring hearty applause from estate lawyers across the archdiocese, all of whom can share horror stories about what can happen to the families of those who die intestate, that is, without a will.

True, most of us won’t attract the 700 would-be relations claiming a piece of Prince’s millions when he died intestate — but our estates, whether they’re worth $5,000 or $500,000, are just as important for our loved ones’ well-being after our deaths as those celebrities’ millions are to their families.

And yet it’s estimated that 68% of Americans don’t have a will; 55% die intestate; and nearly 72% die without an up-to-date will.

Jessica Rogers, a Eugene lawyer whose practice includes estates and estate planning, has heard people say they weren’t rich, didn’t have an “estate,” and so didn’t need a will.

She tells them they almost certainly do have an estate and that it’s a kindness to their loved ones to make a will.

Leonard DuBoff, a Portland attorney who has taught law (and whose clients include Oregon Catholic Press, publisher of this newspaper), explained if you have a car, a house or a retirement account then you have an estate.

A will saves your family from headaches to accompany the heartache of loss. They won’t have to post a surety bond in probate court for starters, and there will be less confusion over who gets what. When there’s a will, the person writing the will is in charge of who will be the executor, rather than the court deciding.

Do you want to leave something to the archdiocese, to your parish, your alma mater, or to the cause or hospital you love? Then you need a will.

Rogers noted a case where a woman died without a will and no known relations. If no relatives are found, an estate goes to the state.

A member of St. Peter Parish in Eugene, Rogers knows if one of her fellow parishioners died in those circumstances, he or she likely would want the church to benefit.

DuBoff points to the singer John Denver as a cautionary tale. Denver, who also was known as a humanitarian and activist, died intestate in an experimental plane crash in 1997. He was a board member of the Cousteau Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organizations that he may have wanted to receive a bequest from his $19 million estate. Without a will his three children received the entire amount. The court appointed his first wife, Annie, as executor. She might have been his choice — or maybe not.

As for writing your will yourself, the American lawyer and judge John Marshall Gest warned against it more than a century ago: “Every man who knows how to write thinks he knows how to write a will and long may this happy hallucination possess the minds of our lay brethren … .”

There are unanticipated problems beyond what Aretha Franklin’s family encountered after she died in 2018. Reportedly they found two contradictory wills she had written, both of which read like rough drafts. Then a third will was found in the cushions of a couch. The courts decided the wills were nonbinding. A trial to decide on the dispensation of her $80 million estate begins this month.

Closer to home, Rogers referred to a case where a decedent with a do-it-yourself will left a retirement account to children. Unfortunately, just one child was named as beneficiary on the actual retirement account, something the will writer hadn’t remembered. The will did not supersede the retirement account’s instructions.

Wills also need to be updated regularly.

Rogers said she tells her clients that they’ll hear from her in about five years after they’ve written a will regarding any changes — marriage, death, birth, divorce, changes in assets — that may lead the person to want to update the document.

A real-world example of this is the actor Heath Ledger, who died after the birth of his child. His will didn’t include his 2-year-old daughter. His family, the beneficiaries, did gift his entire $16.2 million estate to the little girl.

DuBoff counseled that changeable tax laws make a difference with estate planning and wills — another reason to speak with a professional, especially for those with sizable estates.

In Shakespeare’s King Richard, the overthrown king goes back on his decision to “talk of wills,” adding, “And yet not so, for what can we bequeath, save our deposed bodies to the ground?”

In fact, surely even deposed kings have estates — a horse, perhaps?

Best to “choose executors and talk of wills.”