Who Will Have the Last Word in Your Estate Plan?

Ed Kerns |

Have you ever taken a tour of Oakland Cemetery near downtown Atlanta? It’s over 150 years old and full of beautiful gardens, mausoleums, statues, headstones, funerary art, and captivating stories. A visit to this historical sanctuary reveals sad stories like the estimated 7,500 forgotten persons interred in the Potters’ Field, and the approximately 3,000 unknown Civil War soldiers.

On Valentine’s Day this year my girlfriend, Jana, and I took a “Love Stories Tour” of the cemetery and discovered that romance also blooms amidst the gardens of Oakland. We saw the shared headstone of William and Dora Snyder, uniting them forever despite the 24-year age gap that separated them in life and the 51 years that transpired between the loving couple’s passing. The dates on the tombstone showed that the Snyder’s spent more years apart than together, a reminder to us all that life after the loss of a loved one might last longer than we think.

Of all the fascinating lives honored in Oakland, one particularly amusing tale stood out to me. At one point in the tour, our guide, who was dressed as if she’d just walked out of the 19th century, stopped our group in front of a rather ordinary plot.

The tract was quite large with one big headstone for John and Viola Zachary and two others that were slightly smaller for Julia Zachary Bowers and her husband, Alton “TeTe” Bowers. Several feet in front of their respective headstones were two engraved stone tablets. The first said, “She burned her candle at both ends. But it made a lovely light.” The second provided an eternal rebuttal, literally the final say: “He was a fool. But Julia loved him.” I must admit. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Love Stories tour, but this alone was worth the trip.

As best as I can remember from our tour guide and from a quick search on findagrave.com, here’s the story. Julia’s maiden name was Zachary and it looks as if her husband, TeTe, wasn’t that popular within the family such that it was made clear to her that he was not to be buried in the family plot. Against her family’s wishes, he obviously was buried there and Julia’s sister, Geneva Zachary Gibson (those are her initials, GZG, on the stone tablet), while she wasn’t able to stop this from happening, somewhat had the last word by sharing a piece of her mind on this stone. Such was her chagrin that she insisted her remains rest elsewhere so as not to even share burial ground with the much-despised brother-in-law.

What can this visit to Oakland Cemetery offer you regarding the last word in your own estate plan. Whether you have a big estate or a small or modest one, estate planning is for everyone. For example, you want the right assets going to the right people in the right amounts and at the right time. If your estate documentation is not clear, not updated or simply nonexistent, it’s quite possible that your wishes won’t be honored.

Having the last say in your own estate starts with doing some simple yet incredibly important actions and contemplating some delicate questions:

  • Naming beneficiaries to Retirement plans like your IRA, 401(k) or 403(b) as well as life insurance.
  • Updating those beneficiaries in the event of death or divorce.
  • Having an updated Will and possibly even considering having a Revocable Living Trust which can help to avoid Probate and give you greater control.
  • Know how your assets are titled. Do you share Joint Ownership with anyone and do you understand what problems may arise from this type of ownership?
  • What about while you’re still alive? Have you instituted Durable Powers of Attorney to help you make financial and medical decisions for you?
  • Are you in a blended family with children and assets from a previous marriage? Have you identified your unique circumstances and addressed those circumstances in your estate plan documents?

This list isn’t exhaustive by any means but you get the point. Life is ever changing and not everyone within a family shares the same vision or values. And the Zachary family plot reminds us that one’s wishes in life are not always respected and can even be ignored, questioned, or contradicted in death.

It’s important to talk with your financial planner to get very clear as to whom the people are you want involved or not involved in your estate as well as how you want them treated in terms of what they get and when. Then consult with an attorney who specializes in estate planning and share that information so that together you can properly draft the necessary documents. If your financial advisor isn’t willing or able to have these types of planning discussions with you possibly it’s time for a second opinion. You’re no fool. Have the last word in your estate plan.