Sweat Equity and Simple Estate Planning

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a group of new Houston Habitat for Humanity homeowners as part of their “sweat equity” program. If you live under a rock like I apparently do, you too might not have known that Habitat homeowners are required to invest hundreds of hours of their own time and labor into building their homes and their lives. The Houston Bar Association and the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program partnered to provide these homeowners with free Wills to see that their new assets are efficiently transferred to their loved ones upon their death.

As I explained the importance of executing documents like Wills, Powers of Attorney and Directives to Physicians, I received several excellent questions from the audience regarding the effect and consequence of doing so. Although preaching the gospel of estate planning is a pretty far stretch from fire and brimstone stuff, I learned that almost nobody in the room had ever executed a simple Will. I also learned that there are some pretty fundamental misconceptions about documents like this running loose in our state. Here are some thoughts I shared in trying to set the record straight.

Preparing and executing a simple Will is something everyone should take the time to do. Everyone has an idea about who they would like to have receive their property upon their death; the spouse, the kids, the Church, etc. Even better, a lot of people have an idea about who might throw a wrench into the works; your good-for-nothing brother, the son that borrows and never repays. Your Will can do several things. At the very least, it identifies who is who (so that a court will not have to), it outlines who should receive what (so that our legislature will not have to) and it nominates a responsible person to carry out your plan (so that the job is not a free-for-all).

The cost of a simple Will is a small one to pay when you consider that your family and loved ones may be left to deal with the above issues and more upon your death. You can deal with those issues now. You can also change your mind. I spoke with a very nice woman, after finishing up with the Habitat crowd, who was actually scared to have her Will prepared in case she changed her mind. If your attorney asks you to etch your Will into stone, fire him.

Circumstances change. People get married and divorced, couples have children, children have children, property is bought and sold and life continues to happen every day. Your Will is not a one-shot document. You and your attorney may revise or revoke it in part or in whole from now until the day that you die. Major life events like the ones above are generally a good time to review estate planning documents, and we generally advise our clients to review their documents every four to five years just to make sure that they still match their intentions.

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking to a group of people who had just received, or were still building, the largest asset they will probably ever own. Simple estate planning might not be the first thing you think about when you wake up, but it remains an easy and efficient way to ensure that your intentions are carried out. It is truly encouraging to see groups like our bar associations and pro bono legal services partnering with other groups to educate others. Obviously, we will always have a much larger audience that needs to learn the same lessons.