Are you not sick? Not that old? Then it’s the perfect time to write your will, says Kenneth Vercammen, a South Brunswick attorney who specializes in estate planning. “The whole process is substantially more difficult if you don’t get a will done right,” Vercammen says. He’s referring of course, to the difficulties faced by the living, who must decide who gets which part of your stuff when you die.
Vercammen will give a free talk Monday, October 17, at 7 p.m. at the South Brunswick Public Library at 100 Kingston Lane in Monmouth Junction. For more information, visit www.sbpl.info or call 732-329-4000, ext. 7286.
While it will cost a few dollars to hire a lawyer to draft a proper will, the lawyers will get more money in the end if someone dies either having no will, or one that was self-drafted and ambiguous. A lack of a proper will can lead to a protracted legal battle among relatives that ultimately benefits attorneys the most, he says.
There once was a divorced man who gave his new wife a Christmas card. It said: “I love you and everything is going to go to you.” Vercammen worked on the case. It went before a judge, and the handwritten Christmas card did not hold up in court.
In another case, a man put a bit more thought into his will. He typed out that his son would get an inheritance if he could prove that he was his natural child. “How do you do that?” Vercammen says. “A birth certificate doesn’t mean anything.” In other cases, writers fail to account for contingencies. For example, they leave everything to be divided equally among their three children. But what if one of their children dies? How is their share divided?
Vercammen says it’s important to specify ahead of time what you want to do with your money, especially if you don’t intend to leave everything to your children. For example, someone with well-off children might leave some of their estate to grandchildren instead, to be used for their educations. “If the kids get it, they’ll buy something they don’t really need,” Vercammen said, imagining a hypothetical scenario. “Like they’ll say, ‘oh, I really wanted to have a boat.’ Well, boats aren’t as a good an investment as if their kid gets to go to the best private college in the country.”
Another reason to write a will is to make clear who will administer the estate. Many people don’t know this, but the law in New Jersey requires anyone administering an estate to post a bond to ensure that they don’t steal the money. In most cases, a will has a provision waiving this requirement. Specifying an administrator does away with that expense and with the potential dispute over who is in charge.
When leaving money to children or grandchildren, Vercammen recommends against giving large amounts of money to kids when they turn 18. “It’s not a good idea because most 18-year-olds do not invest or spend their money wisely,” he says. Often people will specify they get some at 18, some more at 21 and 25, and the rest at age 30. “This protects children from bad influencers — their friends,” he says.
Once you have a will, what to do with it? Vercammen has had his own brushes with estate planning that have shaped his view of this question. He grew up in Edison, where his father was an engineer who supervised a factory and his mother was a secretary.
His father, a meticulously organized person, put some valuables in a safe deposit box at a local bank, and left Vercammen the key. Years later Vercammen returned to the bank to get the box. But the bank had been bought by First Union, then First Fidelity, then several other banks. By the time Vercamman walked into the lobby with his old key, it was a Wells Fargo. But the records had not been perfectly kept through all the changes, and Vercammen wasn’t on the account. He would have had to have left empty handed, but luckily his parents were both still around and were able to help him sort it out.
That episode is a good illustration of why Vercammen doesn’t recommend keeping important documents in a safe deposit box. “Banks change names and owners all the time,” he says. Instead, keep them in a fireproof safe. And make sure it’s waterproof too, if it’s in a location at risk of flooding.
Lastly Vercammen advises giving power of attorney only to someone you “super trust” because it leaves them in a position to plunder your assets if they feel like it. Assigning power of attorney only on disability is somewhat more cumbersome, but helps prevent a “Rocky V” type situation. In Rocky IV, Rocky travels to Russia to fight Dolf Lundgren. In the next movie, he returns to find that he hastily signed a document when he left that granted power of attorney to an accountant who then took all his hard-earned money and fled overseas.