Read this column in Wisdom Circle here

10 September 2023

Here is a staggering statistic from surveys conducted by firms such as Wisdom Circle: 95 percent of Indian seniors don’t have a will.  They also underestimate how much money they will need as longevity increases.  The second issue is for a separate column but in this one, let’s talk about wills. Have you made yours? And why are Indians congenitally reluctant to make them?

I think it is a combination of two things: an aversion to face death and a belief that you are young (even if you are in your seventies) and can therefore write a will when you get ‘old.’ Last month, a cousin died suddenly of a heart attack.  He was educated in IIT, ran successful companies and lived in Silicon Valley.  He died intestate, which is the legal term for someone without a will.  The good news is that most countries transfer all assets to the next of kin, usually the spouse (wife). But writing a will is about closure and legacy.  It is about telling your heirs and the world what your wishes are.  When you think about it, a will can be a powerful document that lives on after you.

The actual process is fairly simple.  You mention your complete details, specify all your assets, name an ‘executor’ who is someone that will manage your estate (a fancy word for the things you leave behind) after you die.  Many folks choose their eldest child, most often a son. Then you name beneficiaries.  Again, most folks divide all their assets equally between their children—unless there is a family feud with estranged children.  Then you say that you drafted the will without duress– nobody forced you to say what you did.  You also say that were fully in charge of your sensibilities.  The last thing is to register your will in the presence of witnesses.  This is so that there are no disputes after your death, which sometimes happens, however loving a family you have created. Once you make up your mind, the whole thing can be done in a month, start to finish.  Today, there are a lot of firms that can help you draft your will.  When my husband and I wrote out our will, they made us read out the will into a video camera.  Thus, new technologies improve the will-writing process and prevent ambiguities.

A will is a legal and financial document of course.  But it can also be a powerful emotional tool, a way of tying up loose ends.  For example, if you have good pieces of jewellery, you can leave each piece to specific grandchildren, along with an explanation of why each one is inheriting a particular piece.  These can be gentle affirmations of your love.  “My gold bangles are for my eldest grandson, Nikhil, because when we went to Varanasi, he mentioned how he wanted to be a dancer and would love to wear jingling ornaments.  My diamond nose ring is for my younger granddaughter, Priya, because she is studying archaeology and loves antiques such as this nose ring.  My pearl necklace is for….”

If you and your children are of comfortable means, consider leaving small things for caregivers– with a video explanation of why you are doing this.  “My synthetic sarees are all for Sumati, who took care of me during the last five years.  None of my daughters-in-law wears synthetics, let alone sarees.  Sumati will wear them.”

As you see, you can make the tone as funny or sarcastic or advice-giving as you want.  Nobody can censure you because, well, you are dead.  You can use the will to offer advice to children and grandchildren, emphasize their good qualities, urge them to improve in certain areas and even scold the ones that you feel like scolding.  Get it off your chest—it is your will after all.

“I leave the five acres of land in Gurugram to my only daughter, Vinita. I urge Vinita to continue using this land for farming instead of converting it into cement.  I have taught her about organic farming and hope that she will continue this system. My Gurugram bungalow is to be rented out, ideally to a dance school for at least the next five years. As an erstwhile dancer, this will give me great pleasure and Vinita doesn’t need this property right away.  After five years, my daughter can decide whether she wants to sell, rent or keep the bungalow.”

What you say in your will is limited only to your imagination.  You can use it to offer support to favourite charities that you sponsor, show gratitude, settle scores, and offer solace. You could gift your precious LP record collection to a younger sibling who shares your love of music—particularly if your kids live abroad and don’t care.  You can leave certain assets in a trust until your grandchildren prove their worth by finishing five years in a job (or whatever your measure of maturity is).  You can use the will-writing process to leave letters or video messages to everyone that you care about including your friends.  You can write a letter to an estranged sibling listing your grievances and seeking forgiveness by leaving him or her your mother’s pearls that you inherited.

You can even give specific instructions linking you to old friends, classmates and even lovers.  Remember that movie, The Bridges of Madison County, where two siblings discover that their late mother had an affair with a photographer through her will? A will can be as mysterious and explanatory as that.

So when are you going to write yours?

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