About the Author :
Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.
Here is a staggering statistic from surveys conducted by firms such as WisdomCircle: 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 about how much is enough money for retirement deserves a separate column. 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 facing 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 the law in most countries involves transferring 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 can be your voice, one that lives on after you.
The actual process is fairly simple. In a piece of paper, you mention your details, specify your assets, and name an ‘executor’ who is someone that will manage your estate (a fancy word for the things you leave behind). Many folks choose their eldest child, most often a son. Then you name beneficiaries. Again, most folks divide 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 you are fully in charge of your faculties. 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. You could for instance, leave tokens for loved ones along with messages. Once you have decided on major financial and real estate assets, you can parcel out specific objects to each family member. Women do this a lot with their jewellery, often 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. You can even take digs in your videos. Nobody can censure you. “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.”
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, why don’t you?
“I leave the five acres of land in Gurugram to my daughter, Vinita. I urge Vinita to continue using this land for farming instead of converting it into apartment buildings. I have taught her about organic farming and hope that she will continue this system. My Gurugram bungalow, which I leave to my son, Nikhil, 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 Nikhil doesn’t need this property right away. After five years, he can decide whether he 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. I had an aunt who was unfortunately struck with cancer. Before the disease got worse, she decided to record a video for her loved ones. None of us knew that she was doing this. But it was a wonderful reminder of her wit and wisdom after she was gone. Her children played and replayed it for solace, both immediately after her passing and for years thereafter.
You can write a letter to an estranged sibling listing your grievances and seeking forgiveness. Better yet, you can use the will-writing process of setting right past mistakes. Call up a sibling you have fought with, have a conversation. Who knows? Both of you might feel better for it. Phone a close friend who you are no longer in touch with. Have a chat with your children about what you consider important.
Each of us has a deep and profound need to leave a legacy. Sometimes, it is through starting and building a company. For me, it is through writing books and essays. But the most important legacy is one that I leave to the people who matter to me the most.
The circle can expand beyond family. Write to your old girlfriend (boyfriend), your “exes” and even the people you had a crush on. 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?
Looking for help with your will? Consider these two platforms:
Peakalpha: Peakalpha is a multi-award-winning wealth management company with a full range of services including will-writing.
Yellow: Yellow is the only end-to-end digitally enabled estate and succession planning solution in India. Use discount code WC15 to get a 15% discount.
Explore both options to find the one that suits your needs best. They make the process of creating a will more straightforward and less stressful.