If You Do One Thing For Your Kids, Plan For Your Death

Despite how it safeguards their families, many men avoid will-writing and estate planning. What is it that makes them so hesitant to do it?

Definitions of a “good father” are as varied as there are good fathers, but one thing everyone agrees with is that a good father is a responsible person. A father takes care of his children and keeps, to the best of his abilities, the world around his children in working order. Responsibility is the backbone of parenting, and in a society such as ours, where definitions of masculinity are entwined with notions of leadership and authority (however flawed and gender-biased those notions are), a father is expected to leave no loose ends, nothing overlooked.

Why, then, do so many men who are otherwise great dads turn into shrugging, uncertain, and fearful teenagers when they are faced with the basic life task of arranging their wills and creating solid estate and guardianship plans for their children? According to lawyers and legal experts we spoke to, getting fathers into their offices to make even the most basic wills or simply have conversations about what happens to their children after their deaths, is extremely difficult.

“I’ve met super cautious dads, you know, the kinds of guys who obsessively have their cars tuned up every three months and go around checking the smoke alarm batteries every two weeks, who will put off the will-signing appointment over and over,” a lawyer friend tells me. “It’s just a document, not a curse.”

The reasons why fathers avoid making wills appear, at first, to be rather silly and overtly superstition driven (If I prepare for my death, I will die, the magical thinking goes). But it’s more than that. A deeper look reveals that many fathers delay estate planning for a variety of complicated reasons, many of them only half-understood by the men themselves.

For instance, many men feel that wills are only for people who have a lot of money to leave behind, and/or since their kids get along well, why bother?

I don’t think I need to [make a will],” says Andrew, a 55-year-old father of two children in their 20s. He is separated from his wife and lives an ocean away from his family. Making a will, or any sort of estate planning, has never occurred to him.

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“My parents didn’t have wills and it didn’t create any problems,” Andrew says. “But, their parents did have wills and there were problems that the wills didn’t solve. You can’t fix your family with a legal document. I trust that my kids are not stupid and love each other.”

Only 36 percent of U.S. parents with children under 18 have wills or living trusts in place.

Andrew is, by his own admission, on the extreme end of the will-avoidance spectrum. But his attitude toward estate planning is hardly singular. If anything, not having a will is common, especially among new parents. According to InvestmentNews.com, only 36 percent of U.S. parents with children under 18 have wills or living trusts in place.

Gerry is in his early sixties and has had a will for a decade, but his family has changed over the years, and he subsequently feels the need to change the document. Nevertheless, he says “I’m struggling with the will thing right now. I dither and put it off.”

Gerry’s main reason for putting off re-jigging his will is his fear that he will make wrong decisions about his estate. His family has changed a lot since his first will, so how can he be sure it will not change again after he makes another?

Andrew, meanwhile, is opting out of the entire right choice/wrong choice dynamic.

“I don’t care what happens after I die,” Andrew says. “And I should not have a say in what other people do after I’m dead. They can figure out what they want, I won’t want anything because I’ll be dead.”

Andrew’s description of his experiences with his own parents and grandparents is telling. Many fathers do what their own fathers did, or very much the opposite. If you grew up in a household where estate planning and wills were discussed openly and not considered taboo subjects, you’re likely to behave the same way as your own family begins to grow. And sometimes having a father who was difficult about his will (as was mine at times) prompts men to do a better job when it’s their turn.

Many fathers do what their own fathers did, or very much the opposite.

“My dad was cagey about telling anyone what was in his will. It was one of his defining traits. ‘What’s in dad’s will?’, we always asked,” Shawn tells me. Shawn is in his 40s, married, and has one child. Shawn’s father used his will as a way to control his family.

“No one was allowed to know. Ever. He had at least four wills over the years and in each one he wrote someone out for a snub or added someone. I only found this out after he died. Growing up, we were always told it was all going to the Jehovah Witnesses — or to the cows.”

Shawn credits his father for setting a useful poor example. Shawn’s affairs are in order and have been since his child’s infancy. When his child asks, he will tell them all about it.

***

Eido Walny has heard these sorts of stories and responses before. Many times. The founder of Walny Legal Group in Milwaukee, Walny’s specialty is estate planning. He deals with reluctant and hesitant fathers every day.

“It’s a little bit of time in an office, it’s no big deal,” he says of the process. “But not doing it is a very big deal.”

Walny founded the Walny Legal Group in 2011, a firm that specializes in wills, trusts, succession plans, and probates (among many other forms of estate planning). I get it, nobody wants to spend time with lawyers and no one thinks they’re dying tomorrow. They think it will cost too much money and lawyers are all crooks. Or, men say it won’t be their problem because they will be dead. It’s all nonsense.

What is not nonsense, and alarming, are the statistics.

“Between 50-75 percent of all adults in the U.S. do not do any estate planning,” Walny says. “Of the 25-50 percent who do, only about 40 percent of those have properly updated and appropriate documents. That means that only about 10-20 percent of the U.S. population has a good estate plan right now.”

“Between 50-75 percent of all adults in the U.S. do not do any estate planning,” Walny says. “Of the 25-50 percent who do, only about 40 percent of those have properly updated and appropriate documents.”

InvestmentNews.com reports that only 42 percent of all U.S. citizens have any kind of legal document pertaining to their assets and desires should they die or become incapacitated and unable to make such decisions. Similarly, a Gallup poll from 2016 reports that numbers are dropping. In 2005, the percentage was 51.

Estate planning does not have to be expensive or complicated, Walny says. Not doing it, however, can be exactly that. “I remind anyone who plans to die without a will or estate plan that the state they live in will dictate the estate plan for them after they’re dead. And those laws are one-size-fits-all format and are unforgiving.”

Walny issues a stern pleading: “To dads in particular, I say this: children require planning. In most cases, a will is the only document where a parent can put forward a name to be the guardian of minor children. Failure to do that will lead to a free-for-all in court.”

***

Some fathers avoid making wills because their fathers did not have wills, because the practice was not modeled for them. Other fathers avoid making wills because they don’t see the point, don’t think it’s worth it, or have no time or use for legal formalities. These are understandable if flimsy reasons. Most people dislike fuss and most people avoid unpleasant tasks.

But what if there is something in the very identification as a father, in the social norms we’ve built around what being a dad, that prevents men from taking care of, literally, the business end of being a parent?

According to studies on male avoidance, in particular those that examine how men put off their own health, men’s core concepts of masculinity impede their progress with necessary adult tasks. As a study published by the American Sociological Association noted, middle-aged men who strongly idealize masculinity are almost 50 percent less likely than other men to seek out preventative medical care.

What if there is something in the very identification as a father, in the social norms we’ve built around what being a dad, that prevents men from taking care of, literally, the business end of being a parent?

“Endorsement of masculine ideals negatively influenced preventative care seeking regardless of a man’s prior health, family background, marital status, and an array of socioeconomic variables,” study authors wrote, adding that “…deep-seated masculinity beliefs are one core cause of men’s poor health, inasmuch as they reduce compliance with recommended preventative health services.”

Swap “preventative care” for “estate planning” (which is nothing more than legal preventative care), and the avoidance makes perverse sense. Many fathers want to present a role model-worthy ideal of masculinity to their children, to be the kind of dad they had or wish they had had. But at the same time, most traditional presentations of masculinity stress that the father figure can never convey weakness, uncertainty, nor the need for help.

Asking a father who aspires to be an upright, strong, and reliable dad to abruptly step away from that role and candidly talk about death, the ultimate vulnerability, well, it’s a mixed message request, to say the least. And so men avoid visiting their lawyers.

Dr. Kenneth Moffatt, Professor of Social Work at Ryerson University in Toronto, is the author of Troubled Masculinities: Redefining Urban Men. He describes the avoidance of will making as a “crisis of identity”. The mundane reasons fathers give for not making after-life plans are a symptom of a larger problem: men not wanting to admit they are vulnerable and, more so, not display vulnerabilities to others.

Men are supposed to be productive and ceaseless. So, when men avoid triggering things, like making wills, it’s not really about the will at all.”

“There is a whole literature in masculinity studies that details how social roles for men dictate that men must be autonomous and closed, independent,” he says. “This is true for fathers as well. Men tend to see their bodies as having boundaries, as being, metaphorically speaking, impenetrable. To behave in other ways leads to social shame.”

This gender programming is the subtext, Moffatt argues, of much male behavior, especially the avoidance of tasks that prompt feelings of vulnerability and mortality.

“Death is the final revenge on maleness,” Moffat says, “everything a man is supposed to be stands outside of that finality. Men are supposed to be productive and ceaseless. So, when men avoid triggering things, like making wills, it’s not really about the will at all.”

New fathers need to embrace the simple truth that just because something feels emasculating, it does not mean it actually is emasculating. Being prepared for uncomfortable realities is masculine too.  

The men I spoke to told me that once they actually got around to making wills, they felt not only a great sense of relief, that which comes from checking off a big box on the life list, but also that they were better fathers. Better because they did not let their vulnerability triggers stop them from being smart.

“My father left things in a mess. He dealt with aging and his assets very badly, and never communicated about it all,” says Carl. “I’m not going to do that to my kids.”