Updating wills, other legal papers can ease loved ones' grief
Stars and Stripes December 5, 2004
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — If you’re bored with the tried but truly routine New Year’s resolutions such as losing 10 pounds or quitting smoking (again), military officials have another goal for your consideration: preparing for death.
It’s not quite as gruesome or sad as it sounds. Preparing for the loss of a loved one involves business decisions as well as emotional ones. Some forethought on those choices now can help ease the pain and confusion that comes after a death, financial officials and military lawyers say.
In fact, keeping legal papers and beneficiary information up-to-date should be as routine as filing tax returns or winterizing a car. Letting those details slide can mean unintended consequences, such as benefits going to an ex-spouse or omitting children from an inheritance.
“It’s just horrible if they haven’t kept their records up to date,” said Kenneth L. Stark, who heads the civilian personnel office for Area II and recalls plenty of scenarios in which outdated records have prompted emotional family fights. “It’s really something you need to think about.”
It’s also something that’s convenient to do. The military offers free legal assistance, including wills and powers of attorney, to all active and retired servicemembers and to all Department of Defense workers and their family members.
Most experts advise reviewing wills and beneficiary lists at least once a year, or whenever there is significant change such as a marriage, death, birth, divorce, new job or new investment.
And deployment, certainly, should trigger a review of legal matters, said Capt. Robert Vedra, who heads Yongsan Garrison’s legal assistance office.
“The most important thing is having a will,” Vedra said, whose office processed more than 200 wills last year.
A will directs how assets should be distributed and names a guardian for children in case both parents or legal guardians die. In the case of married couples, Vedra advises two separate wills.
Inheritance designations can be as simple as naming a couple of heirs or contain more detailed instructions about leaving individual items and amounts to various people and charities. You don’t have to make a list of all your belongings, or even all your bank accounts, and you don’t have to update that information unless it involves a specific gift, Vedra said.
When most people draw up a will, they also approve advanced medical directives. These documents — a living will and a durable health-care power of attorney — provide instructions for medical professionals and for friends and family, telling them what health care choices you want if you’re unable to decide for yourself.
The legal office also can prepare powers of attorney. These are documents that allow other people to do specified tasks in your absence, such as sell property, withdraw money or make decisions for children in school.
Many servicemembers who deploy get powers of attorney. Vedra’s office will handle them on a walk-in basis, though he requests that people schedule an appointment to prepare or revise a will. Contractors should call ahead to determine whether the free legal assistance is included in their company’s contract with the government.
But a will can’t do everything, Vedra warned. No matter what’s in your will, any money in a Thrift Savings Plan will go toward whomever is listed in the policy. It should be a concern, especially for younger soldiers, he said.
“They forget this is out there,” he said. “And it’s often the lion’s share of what they leave behind.”
Another part of that lion’s share is often a Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance policy. If a soldier is contributing the maximum amount, the claim can be $250,000. That money — along with a $12,000 death gratuity that helps families pay for funerals — will go to the person designated on a Record of Emergency Data card, regardless of what a will says.
When that data card is out-of-date and the servicemember dies, then the military’s hands are tied.
“We can only pay to whomever is on that data card,” said Sgt. 1st Class Vicki Rutland, who is with the 175th Finance Command and has helped disburse soldiers’ funds to families for 17 years.
“I have seen it so many times,” she said. “Guess what? The ex-spouse is going to get the money.”
In South Korea, the 8th Army Personnel Command keeps the emergency information. The Army uses the information to notify family members of a death as well as for financial reasons.
“Here, it’s especially important because most of the spouses aren’t here,” said Maj. Julie Keller.
Another thing to think about, Keller pointed out, is to make sure family back home knows about family changes in South Korea.
“It’s good to let your parents know you got married,” she said.
Soldiers can update their information at anytime, she said, by bringing copies of marriage, birth or divorce papers to their local personnel office.
There’s another thing to consider when it comes to spouses, especially those who have non-U.S. citizenship: If the servicemember or civilian worker dies, will the spouse be able to move to the United States or even attend a stateside funeral? Keller suggested looking into visa requirements now, just in case.
Last week, William King II finally took the plunge and got a will. King, 21, of Hastings on Hudson, N.Y., has been in South Korea for three years but never had a will written for him.
So what prompted the planning? Good news, it turns out.
“I got married a couple of months ago,” he said.