Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is an epidemic among military members. Its symptoms run the gamut from nervous reactions to loud noise, to complete incapacitation even in the simple activities of everyday life. PTSD can often be treated with medication, therapy, service animals, etc., but sometimes it leads to the ultimate tragedy: a veteran takes his or her own life. I’m not a mental health professional, but I do assist in cleaning up the mess left when a veteran commits suicide without leaving a will.
I’m a retired Air Force Reserve Colonel. I spent 30 years active and reserve time in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (a military lawyer). My civilian practice involves a lot of estate planning and probate cases, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the last several years: more and more veterans leaving this earth without a will that says who will inherit their earthly possessions. I’ve represented a number of clients whose veteran loved ones – I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say this – left them a mess to clean up by not making a will.
You see, in Texas, when you die without leaving a will, your property is distributed according to the laws of descent and distribution. What’s that? It’s the state deciding who gets your stuff. Let’s look at a hypothetical: Sergeant Veteran kills himself, leaving no will, a current wife, an ex-wife, a child of his current marriage and kids from his former marriage. Many people assume that his current wife will get his whole estate – after all, that’s who he’s married to, right?
Wrong. His current wife will keep her half of the community property, a third of his separate property that’s not real estate, and a one-third life estate in his separate property real estate. The kids get the rest. That means that if she’s living in a house he bought before they were married, she doesn’t own it – his kids do. They can’t kick her out, but she can’t sell the house. Even if their house is community property, his kids still end up owning half of it. If he had left his estate to her in his will, she would own everything. Even if he’d left part of his stuff to his children, at least everyone would know who gets what. Add to the property issue the complexities and expense of an heirship proceeding (the kind of probate that happens when somebody dies without a will), and the process of settling Sergeant Veteran’s estate becomes expensive and time-consuming, adding to the heartache of his passing.
The moral of the story is that, for inheritance purposes, all parties will be very well served by the veteran – whether suffering from PTSD or not – making a will. As noted, the Jacobson Law Firm, P.C. does estate planning, as do a number of other firms. There are several low-or-no-cost options as well: The San Antonio Bar Association’s Community Justice Program has a regularly scheduled workshop at the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio where veterans and their spouses can get free estate planning done, and the State Bar of Texas has a number of other avenues to assist veterans with their legal needs as well. If the veteran is retired from the military, any base legal office will prepare these documents at no cost.
As always, the above is legal information, not legal advice, and it’s based on Texas law because I’m a Texas lawyer.