My good friend Kathy Flann invited me to a wine party at her house in Hampden a couple of weeks ago. As much fun as I have with Kathy — she can make me crack up, even when everything’s wrong — I had mixed feelings about accepting the invitation. Some parties, you bring an extra bottle of wine or a bag of Doritos — not this one. Kathy wanted me to print my General Maryland Will and consider carefully its finer points before I left the house.
Why the quirky proposal? Kathy’s fastidious mother, Karen, had been after her for years to prepare her will, in case the awful unexpected happened. But Kathy, a fiction writer who teaches at Goucher, put it off and put it off some more.
“It seemed overwhelming to deal with what I imagined was a lot of paperwork and a need for a lawyer,” Kathy says. “Other things always seemed more pressing and easier to deal with…”
When Kathy’s stepfather passed away last month, death felt realer, though she’s only in her early 40s, and the daunting will project suddenly seemed pressing.
“It made me think about how inconvenient it could be for your family not to have a will,” Kathy says. “I think, because I’m single and I don’t have children and I’m not rich, I never really thought it mattered not to have a will, because I don’t have that much stuff and I don’t have people I’m worried about providing for.”
But Kathy took stock of her possessions, among them a cozy two-story house in Hampden, a fairly new car, and a yellow lab called Clark.
“I guess I realized that everyone leaves something behind, and you do have some stuff,” Kathy says. “I wanted to think about my family and make it as easy for them as possible if something happened… Something will happen to everyone.”
The will prep wasn’t nearly as daunting as she’d expected, not by a long stretch.
“I went and looked it up; I googled ‘free will and testament Maryland.’ I went online to the government page – as long as you do the things in the form, it’s legal.”
And having followed protocol for the party, I can vouch for that. Turns out it’s as simple to finalize your will as it is to print a document, fill in a few blanks, and sign the sheets with two witnesses on hand.
Do you have a will, reader? Why are most of us so hesitant to begin the process, aside from the potential for bad vibe-age?
“I think people think they have to use a lawyer and they don’t; you just have to have two witnesses – it was helpful to figure that out,” Kathy says.
From my perspective, at first, the thought of printing this document and making heavy decisions about who receives my savings and my paintings and so forth simply sounded like a lot of work, with a little bit of nervous emotion dolloped on top. But it doesn’t have to be labor-intensive. In the end, with an eye toward my own end, I just broke my modest holdings into three camps. Time involved: 10-15 minutes. Anxiety: It passed after 60 seconds.
Other important factoids: “Only original documents have legitimacy with the court. Copies don’t have legal standing,” Kathy explains. “You fill this out in your own handwriting – the information in your own writing, that’s it, that’s what your family needs. It doesn’t have to be notarized. It doesn’t have to be in triplicate; in fact, triplicate wouldn’t even be valid.”
Kathy learned several more shortcuts to easy willing as she went.
“Paste [the will forms] in Word rather than paying for the doc,” she says.
You can make your bequest page as detailed as you like, and you can also (tip from savvy Kathy) cut and paste additional bequest sheets and add those to your will doc.
“You can will specific items to specific people in your life,” Kathy says. “Howard [Yang, a 40-something attendee] went through his house for days. And he thought about it as a way to give final gifts to his friends. His stuff is precious to him – he’s a record collector and has been a comic book collector… He put a lot of thought into who gets what.”
Kathy, like me, chose a simpler route.
“I don’t want to will things to people and have it be a burden,” she says. “I thought of things you would most broadly consider to be assets. I actually feel bad willing my house to my mom, because I feel like now she has to deal with all my crap.”
One of the best benefits of the party, in addition to the wine buzz, was the sense of community we all felt, the sense of closeness as we described our bequest decisions.
“We learned a lot about each other, not just by what we willed but how we willed,” Flann points out.
For Justine [Golden, a Hampdenite attendee in her early 40s], it was nice to have that conversation: “‘Would you take care of my dog if something happened to me?’ And I could say, ‘Yes!’ That was a nice moment to have with a friend.”
In planning her guest list, Kathy didn’t ask people who might be completely turned off by the idea, nor folks who’d probably already have their affairs in order.
“I just invited people I thought would be okay with it. We needed two, three minimum,” she says. “I didn’t email any friends with kids because I assumed they would have wills. But I should not have assumed that. I realized recently that some friends who have kids don’t have wills; I should have asked anyone I thought would be okay with it, without making assumptions about their preparedness.”
Kathy Flann’s list of ingredients for a good will party (in case you want to throw one this winter) follow:
People who are comfortable talking frankly, who can laugh about it, who aren’t going to be creeped out. And the thing is, people who are creeped out will not accept the invitation. And I totally understood if someone wasn’t ready to deal with it!
at least one dog to keep us in the moment
several extra copies of official documents (“We needed to mess up and do a new one,” Kathy says.)
Reminder: Cut and paste extra bequest pages if you like.
As the party winded down, I think we all felt a sense of peace, not in the RIP sense, more the Zen one. We’d accomplished something. We’d had a few drinks. And, in a way, we’d laughed at death in the face.
“I felt a sense of relief, peace of mind – it’s something I’ve been meaning to do,” Justine says.
“I think like Justine I felt relieved,” Kathy adds. “I’ve realized it makes me feel motivated to work on the other documents I haven’t, like an advanced directive and a living will, which honest to God I don’t know the difference between. It’s not as a big a deal now, and it would be a very good thing to do.”
One more decision to be made (if you choose to make it) before you complete your will: Burial or cremation…or will your body to science?
See the site linked at top for information and access to the General Maryland Will documents, will documents for married people, single people, the widowed, and more options.
Side note: After one young woman’s husband was killed riding his bike, she realized they hadn’t finalized their wills, she didn’t know how much life insurance they had, etc. Her well organized site, getyours#$%together, offers more great tips for clarifying life in view of its (potentially sudden) end.
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