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Detroit Proper: For Blacks, When It Comes to a Will, There's No Way

Why don't we plan for our passing?

In August, I lost two stars in my universe. I shared one star with the rest of the world: Detroit's queen, Aretha Franklin. But I couldn't bear to watch the spectacle of her day-long funeral on Aug. 31, because another star in my sky, my 96-year-old aunt, died just three days before. The women had very little in common except they both exemplified the word "diva." But in the end, they also shared something that seems to plague the broader black community – an inability to plan for their own mortality. 

We know that Franklin, whose death was far from sudden, died without a will. Her $80 million estate is now wending its way through court. My aunt wasn't worth millions, but she, too, watched death coming and did little to prepare. Despite friends and family begging her for years to get her papers together, to move into safer housing (she died only two weeks after finally moving into assisted living), and to let someone help with her finances, she refused until it was nearly too late.

It's an old story in the black community: Folks aging with no plan for their care, even as they become increasingly unable to provide for themselves. Folks failing to pass on property to their loved ones, opting instead to let their modest assets get eaten away by lawyers in probate court. Folks arguing that "you can't take it with you," without understanding that's exactly why you should give it to someone else. Guess why African-Americans make up only a fraction of the wealthy one percent? It's because every generation in the black community must start from scratch financially. For us, intergenerational wealth, the most important determinant of long-term financial stability, is almost non-existent.

Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank published a study about race and wealth. The result was as predictable as it was sad. "White families stand out as the most likely to have received an inheritance or other major gift – 26 percent of white families have received an inheritance, compared with less than 10 percent of black families and Hispanic families," said the report. "Most white households (71 percent) report being able to get $3,000 from family or friends in a financial emergency, compared with less than half of Hispanic and black households (49 percent and 43 percent, respectively)."

Earl G. Graves Sr., founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, said it best: "Nearly 70 percent of (African-Americans) have no will or estate plan in place. Not only does this put our ability to transfer wealth to future generations at risk, it also comes at a tremendous cost," he wrote in a 2015 editorial in his magazine. "Merely buying enough life insurance to cover the costs of our burials may have been acceptable for our parents, but it's not even close to good enough for our children and grandchildren." Certainly, many of us feel that we don't have much to pass on, so why bother? (If you have a house, a car, some jewelry, a spouse and/or at least one kid, it behooves you to think about what will happen to your meager possessions when you head to the hereafter.)

But social class doesn't account for the lack of estate planning in our community. Ask Prince. Or Barry White. Or James Brown, Bob Marley, or, yes, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They all died without a will. Perhaps it comes down to a toxic mixture of fear of death and financial illiteracy. Granted, the barriers to attaining that literacy can be substantial. Aside from not having access to lawyers or financial planners, we have no tradition of building and passing on wealth. If your parents refused to talk to you about their financial situation, about their care in old age, about their assets and their dying wishes, how likely are you to know what to do when it's your time to plan for death?

That's why I recently tried to talk to my son openly about this issue. "When should I make a will?" asked the 30-year-old, who is married and doesn't yet have children. "It's never too early to start thinking," I told him. "But especially when you guys buy a home and start a family, you should get something down in writing." He considered my advice quietly. "Do you have a will?" Gulp. Well, kind of. You see, what had happened was … "Um, yeah, but I haven't updated it in 25 years," I admitted, red-faced. Guess what I'm doing this week?

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