Getting the willies over death and taxes
Special to The Seattle Times
CBS' dearly-departed reality show "The Will" had a clan of buffoons competing to be included in the family patriarch's will. Though the early episodes suffered lousy ratings, they did bring up issues we can all relate to, like making sure we're up to date on our wills — and included in ones that actually have valuable contents.
My family recently had a powwow with our tax-avoidance specialist (aka "estate planner") about death, taxes and that legal end-paper known affectionately as a Last Will and Testament. The discussion turned out to be a fairly illuminating affair, with tangents on the best way to smother someone, how we'll know when our parents are technically "incapacitated" (answer: when we say they are) and the location of the particular hike on which my mother would like her ashes scattered. Then we turned to the will portion of the death talks.
"Listen, you're not getting any younger," said my mother — a straight shooter from the Clint Eastwood school — to me. "And you've somehow managed to possess assets. You need a will." The suggestion may have been selfishly motivated; after witnessing my eating habits for the last 37 years, they're entertaining thoughts of outliving me.
So I turned my attention to my last will and testament. My first draft read more like a mission statement than means of property allotment, as I'd found a new forum from which to preach. After venting about bigotry, environmental degradation, improper parenting techniques and a few old grudges (yes, you, Frank Kingsley — you still owe me $350!), I returned to the task at hand: divvying up my stuff.
Rather than pay a lawyer, I purchased a Legal EZ Form: one of those fill-in-the-blanks numbers. They're sort of like Mad Libs but hold up in a court of law: "I (full name) of sound mind and (adj.) body do solemnly (cuss word) swear and (verb) this (adv.) manuscript is my own. ... " Pretty basic wording, till we got to the part about who gets what.
I have tons of material possessions, 90 percent of which, if donated to Goodwill, would wind up in the glassware section: lava lamps, vintage martini glasses, hotel ashtrays. (Which reminds me, I'd like the contents of my mini airline-bottle collection to be placed, one per seat, at the funeral, so folks party right away rather than wait till the wake.)
My most valuable asset is my home and, given that my folks threw in the down payment, I figure I should give it back to them. After paying off the bank, back taxes and the real-estate vultures, maybe they'll have enough to take a cruise. I also own a car, which I decide to leave to my pal Neff, as his is a death trap. All my threads are bequeathed to my best friend, Doug, who needs a style makeover worse than Christina Aguilera.
So what about the cash? After paying off credit cards, the library and the funeral home, I give half to my girlfriend, Vanessa (for whom the term "debtor nation" was coined), and the rest to Greenpeace, something I can leverage in negotiations at the Pearly Gate. My few stocks go to sister Pammy; maybe she can trade the MSFT, SBUX and NSRM for merchandise.
The most important news coming out of the summit was the need for a separate document to detail funeral instructions. If the info's buried in the will (no pun intended), chances are it won't be read till long after you're six feet under, and that special tiki-themed funeral you wanted won't happen, nor will your request for the nickname Puff-Biggy to appear on your tombstone.
My final task was to determine power of attorney, which authorizes a person to manage your money and pay bills if you're in a coma or impaired by Alzheimer's or too much drinking. My clause on this is pretty clear: "Pull the plug, baby!" I've heard stories of people who "come out of it" 27 years later, and that's nice — for them. I can think of nothing worse than sitting in a vegetative state while distraught friends and family hold my hand day after day and tell me stories I can't respond to. Talk about not getting a word in edgewise. As for the "power," I name the only Republican I know: Bill Higgs, a fiscal conservative.
The document needed to be witnessed by two individuals not named in the archive (sorry, Duke and Tonya, you didn't make the cut). It was then notarized.
As I stood at the post office, my will sealed and ready to be mailed, something stopped me. Were these really my last wishes? Pretty much. Was everybody included? I think so. Was there a possibility the beneficiaries would have me killed? Not likely.
My problem had nothing to do with content, and everything to do with superstition. I opened the manila envelope and re-read my opening line:
"I, Michael A. Stusser, of sound mind and body, do fervently believe that once you write a will, you WILL need to use it. If you're reading this, I was right."
I tore the sucker to shreds and burned it in a celebratory pyre in my bathtub. Everything in due time.
Michael A. Stusser lives in West Seattle.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company