It started with leaving my boyfriend my share of the rent — then things got complicated
I’m going to die, I reminded my boyfriend. My eventual death was something I’d been mentioning to lots of people, on Facebook and at engagement parties and at my high-school reunion.
It wasn’t that I thought death was going to come any time soon or in any special way, it’s just that, as they say on Game of Thrones, all men must die. So I was writing a will. I’d downloaded a template. I’d filled it out. I just hadn’t signed it yet, and in the mean time it had become my favorite topic of conversation: I’m going to die, we’re all going to die, I’m filling out paperwork about it, what’s new with you?
I asked my boyfriend: Is there anything else you want me to leave you? Besides my share of the rent. Besides the fish tank and the fish. Besides the coffee table, the pots and pans, the things that I call ours that are legally mine.
He said: Yes, but don’t tell me what it is. Make it something special.
That was a good answer, which wasn’t surprising. He takes deep questions seriously, and we’re well past the point where you have to act like it’s awkward to imply that your relationship will exist more than a few years in the future. So of course he had a good answer — but it was also a difficult one. What object that I owned could possibly say what I needed it to? There was, it must be said, not too much to choose from.
That’s a big part of the reason why young unmarried people with no children — that’s me: 28, legally unattached, childless — don’t usually bother with a will. Unlike a medical directive, which everyone should have, wills are something we can do without. The law of intestacy, the statutes that cover what happens when you die without said last testament, should take care of you just fine unless you’re very wealthy, whereas I fall into the It’s A Wonderful Life category: worth more dead than alive. I’m living comfortably, but my life-insurance policy is my most valuable asset.
Plus, most young people don’t need a will for an even more basic reason. Most of them don’t die.
However, even if death is a constant, life has changed. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report finding that nearly half of American women 15–44 cohabitated with a partner prior to marriage, using data from 2006–2010. That was a major increase from past studies, and by now the numbers may well be even higher. A cohabitating partner is entitled to nothing when the other dies. Marriage and children are also coming later in life, which means that people are acquiring more wealth before the laws regarding spousal inheritance kick in and before they have to choose a guardian for their child. So for people like me, without a will, there’s no way to say give this thing to my friend, give this thing to my brother, donate this thing to charity.
Hence, my will obsession. If all goes according to plan, it will be the umbrella that keeps the rain from falling, rendered obsolete within a few years. Marriage and children and my inevitable Powerball victory will change my priorities, and I’ll have to write a new one. But, as anyone who’s ever thought about a will must have realized, not everything goes according to plan.
Given changing social norms, estate planning ought to be a mainstay for millennial trend-watchers, except that there’s no way to know how many of us are actually out there thinking about the topic. There’s no way to know how many wills there are, period. Lawrence Friedman, a professor at Stanford Law and the author of Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Law estimates that — though there’s no way to track them — wills may be getting more common as popular awareness increases. A century ago, even counting the super-wealthy, he thinks probably half of the population gave it a thought. But, he says, the role of wills is also changing, as people live longer and are more likely to give their children money while everyone is still alive.
What’s not changing is that wills are fascinating to think about. Whether it’s the buzzy economist Thomas Piketty discussing the way inherited wealth affects society or a historian analyzing Shakespeare’s bequeathing his “second-best bed” to his wife, people who look at wills see more than what the dead person wants to do with his stuff. “I used to say to my class that what DNA is to the body this branch of law is to the social structure,” Friedman puts it.
Though it may seem obvious today that each adult has the right to leave his property to whomever he chooses, that privilege isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. Historically, there have been two competing theories behind inheritance law. One side holds that having a will is an inalienable right; the 17th century scholar Hugo Grotius wrote that, even though wills can be defined by law, they’re actually part of “the law of nature” that gives humans the ability to own things. John Locke agreed: if we believe property can be owned, it follows that we must believe that ownership includes the right to pass that property to whomever the owner chooses.
On the other hand, there’s just as long a tradition of the idea that wills are a right established by government and not by nature, because, not to put too fine a point on it, you can’t take it with you. If ownership ends at death, the state should get to decide how inheritance works, for example by saying that all property must always go to the eldest son, or by allowing children written out of a will to appeal to the state. Perhaps due to colonial American distaste for the trappings of aristocracy, the U.S. ended up with the former system — and Daniel Rubin, an estates lawyer and vice president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, says it’s a right worth exercising. “For most young people, it’s not going to be relevant. But it’s a safeguard. People should appreciate the opportunity to do what they want with their stuff,” he says. “We’ve got a concept in the United States of free disposition of your wealth. You can choose to do with it whatever you want.”
Most wills written by young people won’t be read — except maybe by our future selves, nostalgic for the time when a $20 ukulele was a prized possession — and the ones that will be seen will be sad. If I die tomorrow, that will be what’s known as an unnatural order of death, the child going before the parents. Inheritance is not meant to flow upward. On that, tax law and the heart agree. It’s one area where millennials’ will-writing and older generations’ diverge: usually, estate law is a happier field than one might expect, something I’ve been trying to keep in mind. Rubin says he cannot imagine practicing any other area of law and finding it so rewarding.
“It’s never sad. Sometimes people are reluctant to deal with these issues. Perhaps they feel it brings bad luck although they rarely express it that way. It’s probably that they just don’t see the need to do it because they don’t think they’re going to die soon,” he says. “It’s almost uniform that even the most reluctant clients will sign their wills and then leave my office and feel great.”
Of course, it’s not as if “what if I die” is a rare thought, even for people under 30. Tom Sawyer took it to extremes; Freud thought we’re all itching to find out. People will be sad, we hope. Maybe we care about funeral arrangements, like the tragic Love, Actually character whose pallbearers march to the sound of the Bay City Rollers. Maybe we think we know what comes next; maybe we think nothing does. Maybe we’ve thought about who gets the heirlooms, the things that always carry a whiff of death about them.
What happens to the ordinary stuff that fills our homes is less likely to cross our minds. And lot of what we have, or at least what I have, is just crap on some level, mostly. That used starter-level Ikea, left behind by an old roommate who moved to California, isn’t exactly something I’d pass down. My most valuable possessions are mostly Bat Mitzvah gift jewelry. And my favorite possessions aren’t necessarily valuable. And if I did give these things away, how would they be received?
Once, I got a gift from a family friend days before she died. It was a beautiful silk scarf. The death was not unexpected, but I didn’t write a thank-you note in time. The envelope meant for that task was on my desk for years. It was hers, though she never got it, so I couldn’t send it to someone else. Nor could I bring myself throw it away. So I put it aside, indefinitely, until I moved apartments and it was lost in the shuffle, quite literally, in a box marked “stationery.” I didn’t want my crap to become that envelope, useless and painful and eventually lost. Potential candidates: an Altoids tin full of spare buttons, my half-filled journals, decade-old mix tapes; pens and pencils, giveaway tote bags, decks of cards, reference books; nice things like a painting, a laptop, that scarf; the stuff that goes unnamed in the will, under the clause that includes the words “all the rest of my estate.”
The things we leave behind can be heavy. Perhaps the most special something I could leave my boyfriend would be the freedom not to carry me with him. I was reminded of a poem that the rabbi always reads during the memorial portion of the Yom Kippur service. “When all that’s left of me / is love, / give me away,” it ends. I’d never really thought I was paying attention during that part, but it was there, in my brain, waiting for such a moment. (I looked it up; it’s called “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy).
That’s the other option — and, for a while, despite having spent so much time thinking about my will, I was tempted. I could write a simpler will, with only the instruction to give everything to charity, or I could follow the long-standing young person’s tradition and just scrap the whole endeavor.
Except stuff is the only language left to speak. Even Rubin, who says his work is 97% concerned with money rather than objects, knows the feeling: he has a samovar that came to America with his family when they left Eastern Europe with almost nothing. It’s worth little but referred to throughout his life by his mother as his yerushe, Yiddish for inheritance. And “leave me something special” wasn’t all that my boyfriend said. It’s sad to think about, he said, but I like the idea of being named in your will. It’s a privilege to hear someone speaking to you when you thought the chance was gone, he said. No matter what it says in the will, he said, I’ll be happy to hear your voice. He has a point. After all, the verb “bequeath” is from an Old English word meaning “to speak.”
So I decided not to give up on the will. I’ll give my junk and my money to the people I love — though I did end up adding two more clauses before I felt finished. First, I added a few sentences in my own words to the legalese of the template I’d found online: don’t feel bad if you have to get rid of something, I told my heirs. Legally enforceable? No. Worth saying? Yes. Second, I found that something special, something not too heavy.
I printed the will. I found some witnesses and we signed the paper. I folded it up and put it in an envelope and put that envelope somewhere safe. And then I went back to my life.