A finalized will is ‘a relief’ and beats letting Utah make decisions when the time comes
A black leather binder sits on a living room bookshelf inside Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson and Larry Nielson’s century-old craftsman home in Salt Lake City. It’s not a college thesis or a smattering of creative writings by one of their 19 grandchildren. It’s the couple’s last will and testament, estate plan, health care directive and power of attorney.
In other words, the plans for when they die rest casually near where the couple watches TV.
“It’s accessible, it’s here,” Sharon said of the will. “Well, that’s what we’ve told the kids.”
Pointing to the bookshelf, Larry added the “kids need to know if something happens to the both of us.”
I’ve known Sharon and Larry since 2015. Sharon was the head speech and debate coach at Park City High School. I was her assistant coach. We’ve remained close even after I moved on from coaching and Sharon retired from teaching. She often refers to me as her adoptive daughter. They’re like family to me.
If there is one thing I know about both of them it’s that they’re planners. Always thinking ahead and getting their ducks in a row.
The planning for the future of their estate started in 2017 when they were in their late 50s. Since they’re a blended family, Larry and Sharon believed getting a will in order was necessary. Sharon has four kids and Larry has three, each from previous marriages.
“The intent was that because we do have some material possessions and some financial holdings, we didn't want our children to have to deal with who got what and why and how, but we didn't want it being forfeited to an entity like the state,” Larry said.
The couple also wanted to avoid infighting. Larry has seen families ripped apart over deceased loved ones not having a will. Both are members of The Church of Latter-day Saints and served in leadership positions for an assisted-living congregation.
“That's where we kind of got to see on the ground what happened to people as their families tried to make decisions for them,” Sharon said. “Sometimes not the best decisions.”
So they contacted a lawyer to help draft a trust and a will. It took roughly two months, five meetings and a couple thousand bucks to complete. They had some tough decisions to make, like agreeing on an executor. That’s the person who will carry out the terms of the will. It’s a big responsibility.
The lawyer asked questions such as: ‘Do any of your children struggle with money? Has anyone declared bankruptcy? Is anyone an addict? Would any one of their lives be in jeopardy if they were responsible for a large sum of money?’
“And that's just a hard thing to look at all your kids and their life and their decisions – I have to make decisions based on that,” Sharon said. “Setting aside your love for them and looking at how would they handle getting, you know, $50,000. Would they be wise with that or would it harm them?”
Thankfully, Larry and Sharon were able to come to an agreement on who the executor would be. All seven kids were supportive of their pick. They also have backup plans. If their first pick isn’t able to be the executor, there is a third and a fourth option.
It’s good they have a documented plan. Just 46% of Americans have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. For people 65 years of age and older that number is a little better, at 75%
Mike Giles, an estate planning attorney in Cottonwood Heights, said things get drastically more complicated if a will isn’t established prior to death or an unexpected event that leaves someone incapacitated.
If there is no plan in place, “the state of Utah has a plan for you,” Giles said. “If you don't go to somebody and put together a will and put together a trust, you're kind of at the mercy of the state of Utah to tell you where your stuff is going to go.”
He added there is a pecking order, too. Utah statute says the spouse would be the de facto executor, then the children and so on and so forth. But it’s unlikely that the state would seize assets, Giles clarified.
He also recommended not waiting to complete a will and trust if kids are in the picture. Having a legal document indicating where minor children will go and how things will be managed in the event both parents die will save a lot of trouble.
“Because if you have minor kids and both parents pass away, now you've got two competing families. Who's going to take care of those kids? You're going to have grandma suing grandma to get custody of your kids. That happens all the time,” he said.
For Sharon and Larry, everything is in writing. From how assets will be divided to when each would like to stop receiving medical treatment. The will acts as an instruction manual. Both feel a sense of reassurance now that their will is squared away.
“It's on the bookcase. It's not in a vault somewhere. Nothing mysterious about it. We were completely open with the kids about here's what we're doing once we made the decisions,” Sharon said. “So there is relief at the end. For sure.”