SIX YEARS AGO, a colleague came into my office, looking concerned. He asked if I could speak with a client who was suffering from dementia. At the time, I was the Army’s attorney in charge of legal assistance at Fort Hood, Texas. One of the services we provided was drafting wills for servicemembers, veterans and their families.
For our legal office, my policy was that I’d always be the person to deliver bad news. Every attorney who has practiced estate planning long enough has experienced what I was about to go through. But I’ve come to realize that no one is truly prepared for that first time. I certainly wasn’t.
As I walked in and greeted the client, nothing seemed amiss. He was elderly and genial. When I asked him whether he owned his home and where he lived, reasonable questions to ascertain whether he was mentally competent to execute a will, I realized something was off. We sat awkwardly for a few minutes before the gentleman told me he couldn’t remember.
Next came the tough conversation: informing him and his family, who had driven him to the appointment, that they wouldn’t be able to get a will, health care power of attorney and living will because he lacked the necessary mental ability. I’ll never forget that my first such conversation involved a kind, elderly man who wore a subtle pin on his sport coat that indicated he’d received the Silver Star for heroism in combat. That only made the conversation harder. He had sacrificed so much for the country, and yet the rules of my profession forbade me from helping. Instead, I felt utterly helpless.
This hero left my office confused and sad. I’ve thought of him and our conversation often in the years since. A few weeks ago, I participated in an Army Reserve weekend drill, which included writing wills for retirees. It had been several years since I last drafted a will. But on my first day doing so, I experienced the same thing for a second time: another very hard conversation held too late with an elderly veteran.
Candidly, I had put off writing my own will for far too long, even though I’d thought often about the need to get one. After seeing this second client suffering from dementia, I decided it was time to act. When I left the office, I immediately drafted my own while having lunch. Then, I executed it with our Army Reserve paralegals. Frankly, there was no excuse for me not to have a will, especially now that I have kids and need to address their guardianship.
Not everyone needs a will. It may be unnecessary depending on your state’s intestacy laws and the type of assets you have. Still, many people without a will, health care power of attorney and living will need these crucial documents, and getting them will ease the burden on their families.
I put off getting a will for the same reasons many others do: None of us likes to think about our own mortality. My advice: Do it anyway. You’ll no longer have to expend mental energy worrying about it—and your family will thank you.
John Goodell is general counsel for the Texas Veterans Commission. He has spent much of his career advocating for military and veterans on tax, estate planning and retirement issues. His biggest passion is spending time with his wife and kids. Follow John on Twitter @HighGroundPlan and check out his earlier articles.