Why should you make a will? Simply to be sure that the government doesn’t inherit your assets? To be sure that your heirs are treated fairly? To take care of family needs?
Yes, those are perfectly good reasons, but over the past almost 50 years that I have practiced law with the same firm, I have probably written 1,500 wills. As chairman of the estates and trusts department, I have seen almost as many different motivations for making a will as I have seen clients, and I believe I’ve seen the absolute best and worst that human nature has to offer.
One man bequeathed to his son “the pleasure of earning a living because for 30 years he thought the pleasure was mine!”
A woman thought she was treating her daughters very fairly by dividing her estate into two equal shares, 50 percent each. However, the arguing that ensued after she died demonstrated that her two daughters, each of whom was over 60, were still fighting over who was the favorite, why “your wedding was bigger than mine” and why “you got as much money as I did.” The will did nothing to put old hurts to rest.
Many folks use their wills to “right wrongs” they have perceived, and others simply want to say “thank you” to friends who have “always been there.”
One client left thousands of dollars to be used for the care of her cat!
One man left his valuable and beautiful Oriental rug to his delighted daughter, who only found out after the fact that the rug in question was the small Oriental rug in the hallway, not the large rug in the living room.
One man’s will “protected” his daughters by leaving them money in a trust fund, but giving it outright to his sons. Clearly women’s lib and women’s ability to manage their own affairs had not yet seeped into his consciousness.
And then there were those such as Walter. His was the most memorable will I ever drafted, and surely one I will never forget.
Walter died in the early 1990s at age 86. His wife had died about 18 months earlier. They were childless and had no known relatives. Walter and his wife were European Jews who had come to America in 1938, just barely escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. Until his retirement, Walter spent his life working as a bookkeeper for a small business in Buffalo, living frugally and investing wisely.
Walter gave much thought to making a new will after his wife died. He left his estate – about $2 million – to many people who had befriended them over the years, as well as to several local, national and foreign charities that “did good work,” as he put it.
Two of the more memorable provisions of Walter’s will were:
A bequest of $25,000 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., “in gratitude to the United States of America for admitting my wife and me to such a nation at a time when our lives were endangered.”
A bequest of $12,500 for planting 2,500 trees in Israel. (Neither Walter nor his wife had ever traveled to Israel.)
Whenever I read or hear about all of the things that the United States is not as we approach our nation’s birthday – not free enough, not equal enough, not diverse enough – I remember the heartfelt gratitude and appreciation Walter and his wife expressed for what the United States truly is.