Getting in the last words

Wills: Lawyers, estate planners report a big increase in people who want to make sure their affairs are in order.

Life After 50

November 18, 2001|By Maria Elena Fernandez | Maria Elena Fernandez,Special to the Sun

After the terrorist attack in New York, Thomas and Kathleen Snider saw their Los Angeles beachfront home in a different light. The Los Angeles Harbor, their neighbor, seemed a vulnerable target for more terrorism, and suddenly, their perception of their life together changed.

Married for 20 years, the Sniders have a 19-year-old daughter who lives with them. They also have four adult children from prior marriages and a combined eight grandchildren but, until Sept. 11, no will or estate plan to express how they want their assets distributed after they die. The attacks prompted the Sniders to contact a lawyer and arrange their wills.

And they have plenty of company. Thousands of Americans are addressing their personal affairs, turning to lawyers who handle wills and estate planning, as well as Internet sites that offer online services. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, followed by the recent anthrax scare, are forcing people to deal with issues they had ignored or put off.

"We started thinking, 'What if they attack one of these ships in the harbor, or more than one, or one of the fuel transfer stations,' " said Thomas Snider, 52. "Maybe because of these events, we could meet with an untimely demise, and we had nothing in place. We have a rather nice home on the beach. We would like to see our one child stay there as long as she needed rather than have the state come in and decide."

Snider turned to Jeffrey Condon, a Santa Monica, Calif., estate lawyer and co-author of Beyond the Grave: The Right Way and the Wrong Way of Leaving Money to Your Children, for assistance. Condon, who shares his estate-planning practice with his father, Gerald M. Condon, co-author of the book, said their clientele has doubled since Sept. 11.

"It's brought people closer to their mortality and their perception of their mortality," the younger Condon said. "People are doing more inheritance planning, insurance planning and those things they put off or never thought of, because it's a new day. People are more aware that they can go at any time."

Senior citizens are amending their wills; young parents are drawing up wills for the first time, wanting to leave their children's legal lives in order, should they both die.

"In a sense, that's coping with something you can control," said Fred Zuker, a vice president at University of Dallas and professor of psychology who has conducted national workshops on coping with the national crisis. "So much of this is feeling the loss of control, even though that is just an illusion to begin with. To have that illusion yanked from our hands makes us look for things we can recover to get a sense of control. Taking care of your will is one little piece."

The dramatic rise in estate planning marks a sharp contrast in the mentality of the average American who, just months ago, was not thinking much about bequeathing his or her money and other assets, experts say. A survey of 500 men and 500 women across the nation conducted in May by FindLaw, a legal Web site based in Mountain View, Calif., showed that estate planning was not high on the list of priorities of most Americans. About 59 percent of those polled did not have wills, said FindLaw spokesman Leonard Lee.

"It's very unfortunate to see an increase in our sales because of these horrific events, but at the same time, we do feel that everyone should have a will," said Brian Lee, president of L.A.-based LegalZoom.com Inc., which has seen a 50 percent increase in orders since the attacks. "People are filling out wills to protect themselves and their families because they're traveling. There are people who mention anthrax, and we're also getting a lot of traffic from individuals who work in tall buildings who are just scared."

Lee's 1-year-old company has been so overwhelmed with new business that he hired two people to help with the overload. People fill out an online questionnaire, and LegalZoom processes it and sends the customer instructions on making it a legal and binding document. The company is preparing free wills and living trusts for the families of those who lost their lives in the attacks and so far has donated $12,000 of its profit to the New York Fire Department Fund.

At Doyourownwill.com, a Chicago-based site, business also is booming. Traffic on the site as well as purchases have doubled -- but 65 percent of those orders are from people who live east of the Mississippi, said president Brent Pope. The majority of sales are in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

Pope said, "A lot of people are contemplating things they've never thought about before."

Maria Elena Fernandez is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

WHAT'S INVOLVED IN ESTATE PLANNING

* Take time to educate yourself about the complexities of estate planning.

* Determine your family's basic estate planning objectives, and bring members together to discuss the overall plan.

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