Summer reissue: Less than half of New Zealand adults have a will. One hundred per cent of New Zealand adults die. Sam Brooks writes on why you need a will.
First published February 29, 2020.
Before you read any further, ask yourself this one question:
If I dropped dead right now, reading this piece, would my loved ones know exactly – to the letter and number –what I want to happen to me and my worldly possessions after I die?
If you answered ‘yes’, great! Well done. You don’t need this piece. Go and finish Love is Blind, you well-prepared human being you!
If you answered any variation of ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’, then you need this piece. Even more crucially: you need a will.
I’ve had a will since I was 24 and I was left as the least Annie-like orphan you could think of. I’ve been dealing with wills for the bulk of my adult life, being the beneficiary of a few of my family’s wills – including my mother’s – and then the sole beneficiary of my grandmother’s will. Think that’s dark? Yes, it is. But it would’ve been so much worse if neither person had a will and I had no idea what the hell to do afterwards.
But what is a will, actually?
“It’s a legal document that disposes of your assets when you pass away”, says lawyer Liam Hehir, who would know about this sort of thing because while it’s not absolutely necessary to go to a lawyer to get a will, there are very strict rules around how wills are drawn up, how it needs to be signed, and so on and so forth.
“For it to be valid, a will has to be signed by the will maker, and witnessed by at least two witnesses. It needs to appoint somebody to be an executor for the estate. It needs to state what will happen. It needs to account for all the assets of the deceased, what can happen to all the assets, meaning to dispose of what we call the residue of the estate.”
In layperson’s terms, that means appointing someone to look after your crap when you die. In New Zealand, the executor and the trustee tend to be the same person: they’ll be the ones who’ll distribute your will to the beneficiaries once they’ve paid for things like your funeral and burial/cremation/cryogenesis (hey, who knows what the future might hold?).
“You can give a gift of an assigned monetary amount to a certain person. You can give a specific item. You can forgive debts. You can do all those sorts of things that you want to do, as long as at the end of it there’s clear provision for what happens to the balance of the estate.”
So what happens if you die without a will?
In terms of your money and assets, you’re actually not up the Styx without a paddle. New Zealand law actually has a provision for what happens after you die. It’s called the Administration Act, and it’s… kind of shitty to deal with, to be honest. If you die intestate (without a will, which you don’t have) then your assets are paid out to people set out in the Administration Act which will depend on the people you have around you.
Say you die with a partner and no children but with living parents. Your partner gets the personal chattels (basically all the shit you own), a prescribed amount (currently $155,000, should you have that amount, plus interest, under the law) and two-thirds of the residue of the estate (essentially what’s left after you pay for the funeral and other post-death costs). Your parents would receive, equally, the remaining third of the estate.
What if you die with a partner and children? Your partner gets the chattels and the prescribed amount (see above), but they’ll get a one-third share of the residue. The remaining two-thirds will be held for your children until they come of age, which is 20 under the current law.
Sound complicated? Yes! The law often is. Also, doing things under the Administration Act is a costly and lengthy process, while the process of getting probate – basically the Court approves your will and says it is valid – is about as painless as a non-alcoholic post-death process can be.
The answer to why people don’t have wills is obvious, and it’s not because we’re all messy queens who love drama. It’s because we don’t want to talk about dying. Also, if you’re young, death probably feels like something really far away. We want to put off being an adult for as long as possible, and while some things are forced on us, like taxes or grey hair, a will is one of those things you can pretty much avoid your entire life. Nobody is forcing you to get one, and unless someone around you dies, you probably won’t even consider it.
It’s hard to consciously think about what happens after we die. It’s perhaps even harder, depending on your level of self-centredness, to ask your loved ones what they want to happen after they die. Nobody likes to talk about death, but I guarantee you it’s better to talk about it now because it’s a whole lot harder to talk to somebody after they die. Trust me on that one.
When you die, do you know who is going to close all your social media accounts? Do you have a list of your passwords for someone to do this all easily? Does one very specific person know the drawer in your bedroom to empty before your loved ones get to it (you know the one)? It’s questions like these that make me very fun at parties.
As a current and likely permanent orphan, as well as being a gay man with no desire to have children, a very low probability of accidentally creating children, and an unfortunate lack of abilities to resurrect, my beneficiaries are my closest friends. They know this, and we’ve had frank, if not especially pleasant discussions about it. But I’d rather have these discussions now, when I’m able to talk, rather than afterwards, when I can’t.
For example, as a playwright with intellectual property, I’ve set out in my will who gets my royalties when I die in the unlikely case that theatre becomes ‘a thing’ again, and who decides who can put my work on. I’m also donating [redacted, but imagine a number that makes me look good] to the SPCA, which you should also consider doing because legacies and wills are a large source of income for them.
These are the sorts of things that I’ve got in my will, but your circumstances will be different and, honestly, probably more complicated than mine. Maybe you’ve got a blended family, multiple partners, or three houses! If you’ve got assets and loved ones around you, then it’s important to clarify what you want to happen to both those assets and loved ones. This isn’t about death – it’s about everything that’s left after death.
Death leaves a lot of questions, and a will provides an answer to at least some of them. You will die. And that’s why you need a will.
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