Brevity Is Not Always Best

Most people are shocked when they see the sheer volume of paper in a truly well-prepared estate plan. A trust by itself can be over sixty or seventy pages. Add to that the other 6 to 16 documents you’ll want to execute (depending on your family situation) and you can find yourself signing a mountain of paperwork for what you thought was going to be a “simple” estate plan. Many people at that point start dreaming of something short and sweet, something along the lines of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s Will, which contained a mere 176 words:


I hereby make and declare the following to be my last will and testament.

1. My executors will first pay all claims against my estate;

2. The remainder of my estate will be distributed as follows: one- third to my daughter, Margaret Elizabeth Burger Rose and two- thirds to my son, Wade A. Burger;

3. I designate and appoint as executors of this will, Wade A. Burger and J. Michael Luttig.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand to this my Last Will and Testament this 9th day of June, 1994.

Justice Burger’s Will truly is an exercise in brevity, and begins to look pretty good when you’re signing more documents for your Estate Plan than you did when you bought your house. The problem is that it’s never that simple. Justice Burger’s Will neglected to give any powers to his executors, leaving them effectively unable to carry out his wishes. You’ll also notice that Justice Burger’s Will makes no provisions for estate taxes, fails to define “his estate”, and makes no mention of how the distributions to his beneficiaries are to be made.

There are ways to create a very simple and cheap estate plan for your family—through websites and do-it-yourself software programs for the most part. But the truth is that these “simple” Estate Plans most often end up making things difficult and expensive for the people who are left behind. Don’t make the same mistake Justice Warren Burger did. Tempting as it may be, when it comes to your final wishes, brevity is not always best.

(By the way, for those of you who are actually counting the words in Justice Burger’s Will, you’ll notice that the selection quoted above falls slightly short of the 176 words due to the fact that the oath of witnesses was not included in the text of this post.)