Understanding The Need for Wills

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

The accident happened too quickly for Shloimy Bloom to think. His car had skidded badly while driving home from a wedding and was crushed as it rolled down an embankment. Miraculously, he and his wife escaped with just some nasty bruises. But in the aftermath, Mr. Bloom had plenty of time to consider how unprepared he was for everything to have ended so abruptly. Shloimy was inspired to “get his Neshama in better shape,” adding a new learning seder and becoming involved in various chesed projects. Beyond his Neshama, the accident had also been a wake call to make sure his other responsibilities were in good order, too. The Blooms had nine children, and Shloimy had spent the past 17 years building up a solid business to support his family. “What would have happened to the kids if we had both passed on,” he wondered? Who becomes their guardians and decides how our assets are used for their care?”

Shloimy decided to do some research into planning for the worst… just in case. He’d once opened an LLC using an online service and remembered that they’d advertised an “end of life package” for only $349. Experience had taught him however that skilled professional advice usually pays for itself many times over and his families’ legal future was probably not the place to be skimping. He instead set up an informational meeting with a frum estate attorney who’d recently set up a Medicaid trust for his father. Shloimy laid out the whole story ending off with,

“Please explain to me what your services provide me in this scenario and how much might it cost?”

Top Priority: Who Gets the Kids?

The attorney began with explaining that Mr. Bloom had touched on two important parts of estate planning: directing the guardianship of minor children and the deceased’s assets. In an ideal world, it would be clear which remaining family members are best suited to raise small children, should both parents die, Chas v’shalom. However, this is not always the case. The grandparents, even Mechutanim who get along fine at the occasional simcha, may have very different ideas of who will be the better adoptive parents. If either of those couples is divorced, it can get even more complicated, and married siblings (both of the deceased and the minors) can also get into the fray. The last thing yesomim need is to be caught up in a battle of well-meaning custodians. Parents should be making the weighty decision of custodianship in advance, and the only way to do so is with a will.

Managing Money and Medical Decisions

Some may consider the likelihood of both parents dying simultaneously too far-fetched to be concerned with. Even so, even if Shloimy alone passed away, Pessy would probably end up in some sticky situations, suddenly dealing with the family’s finances herself. In addition to the trauma of losing her husband, she would now have to navigate winding down a business and managing substantial sums received from life insurance payouts. Money has a way of attracting all types and widows get bombarded with conflicting opinions from family, friends, askanim, and professionals, some well-meaning and others with ulterior motives. If Pessy later remarries, a host of other financial questions arises as to integrating the income and assets of two families. In the case of extensive estates, there may be tax ramifications as well. Well-crafted wills and trusts can help minimize friction and ensure that Pessy and the Bloom children reap the most benefit possible from Shloimy’s assets.

The estate attorney then added that Mr. Bloom’s estate planning should also address how decisions relating to his medical care are made if he was incapacitated. In cases of a sudden accident, there may be life and death questions to be answered, both from the perspective of medical risk and also halacha. While it is uncomfortable to contemplate, it is when he is healthy that Shloimy can lay down principles to be followed and a “chain of command,” including which Rav to consult in case the worst happens. When tensions are high and time short, a previously signed medical directive can provide the necessary frameworks for decision making.

The Intriguing Halachic Angle

In addition to halachic medical decisions, the need to accurately incorporate halacha into wills is the main reason to hire specifically a frum attorney for estate planning. Hilchos yerusha differs tremendously from the secular law: without contrary instructions from a will, US courts would grant a widow all of her husband’s assets, but according to the Torah virtually all of it immediately becomes the property of her sons! In the absence of a halachic will, Pessy would be forced to either subvert the halacha and keep the money as per the courts or legally gift millions of dollars to her young sons (or their guardians) which will raise many difficult chinuch, shalom, and financial issues. There are clear cut halachos and also generations of established minhagim regulating how to deal with this challenge and a well versed frum attorney can design an inheritance process that combines halacha l’chatchila with a sound legal structure.

Finally, the Value of Peace of Mind

The meeting is coming to an end and it’s time for the attorney to answer the second question about cost. He says, “As you now see, estate planning which incorporates halacha is an involved process, not something to be “zoomed” through. Because it takes hours of meetings and drafting to get a will right, the cost for an average couple is usually a few thousand dollars. Those with few assets and a simple family situation may, therefore, decide to forgo this expense. But otherwise, the cost of a halachic will is a reasonable price to pay to ensure your family’s future and your current piece of mind. “

This article was written with the professional input of estate planning attorneys: Hillel Weiss and Baruch (Brian) Greenwald of Greenwald Weiss Attorneys at Law, which has offices in Lakewood and Brooklyn. Estate planning is complex and I thank them for sharing their expertise for the benefit of  our readers. Geltguide has no financial relationship with them.

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