In spring 2003, I sat in one of my final law school classes: Trusts and Estates. The teacher was a dynamic woman whose sarcastic wit and brilliant zingers inspired my fear and awe. "Lawyers are the worst," she'd said. "They're the absolute biggest procrastinators when it comes to making wills."
Offended, I was determined to prove her wrong. At the time I was single, but swore to myself that I would draw up a will as soon as I had either a valuable possession or a family. I would NOT be one of those delinquent lawyers.
When my first child was born, my husband—also a lawyer—and I vowed to make a will before she turned 6 months old. We blew by that deadline and were soon pregnant with our second. Every year we make new deadlines, only to watch the dates come and go with no will in sight.
"So, about those wills?" One of says to the other every six months or so. It seems like the subject arises when we're in the car late at night with our two children, who are now 5 and 6, asleep in the backseat. We nod vigorously—we know what we need to do.
But we always get stuck at the same place. There's no clear cut answer about who we want to designate as our children's guardians if my husband and I die. It's so awful to contemplate, I shut down after about five minutes of conversation.
Around we go, nominating candidates to raise our children in the event of our demise, but none of them are right. Because none of them are us.
"What about my brother and sister-in-law?" My husband says. I love them, and they would take good care of my kids. But they live five states away from our home in Chicago. And do they know how the kids like to be put to bed at night? Do they know that my kids don't like green apples, but will eat mangoes if they are cubed? Do they know that my son is over Spider-Man and only loves Star Wars?
These questions are unhelpful.
When my husband senses I'm going offline, he brings me back by assuring me that it's "highly unlikely" that both he and I will die at the same time. Somehow, I don't find that reassuring. I'm too busy imagining all the ways it could happen.
We consider my parents in Texas, who would also be great. They too would lavish my kids will love, and as an added bonus, the kids could share my old bedroom. But my parents are getting on in years and have obligations to my sister's three boys. Is it fair to ask this of them?
Around we go, nominating candidates to raise our children in the event of our demise, but none of them are right. Because none of them are us, and it's a block I can't get over.
I mentioned to a lawyer friend that we didn't have a will. She was horrified. (She was one of the good lawyers, one who'd already made a will.) "But your children! Surely you've written down what should happen to them if you guys ... "
I sheepishly admitted that we have yet to take that preliminary step.
She gave it to me straight. "You must do this." She brushed aside my feeble protests that my kids could live with my parents in Texas while it all got sorted out.
"No they can't," she said.
It turns out that without a will, it gets very complicated for children with deceased parents to leave the state where they live. "It requires court orders and lengthy proceedings, even if no one opposes your parents taking them to Texas."
I visualize the painful legal mess we'd be dropping in the laps of the people we love. The same people who would be mourning my loss would also be cursing my name for not getting my affairs in order.
I can't do that to my children or their future guardians. As sick as it makes me feel to consider my children's lives without us, I have to. It's part of taking care of them, just like sending them to school and the doctor, or letting them buy orange Crocs for the beach.
So, I've started my will. I've trudged down the unpleasant road that compels me to envision a world where my husband and I are dead. I sit in that discomfort and ask myself the right question: How can I best provide for my children under this circumstance?