What I Wish I'd Known About My Father's Will: Caring.com Legal Expert Barbara Kate Repa

An expert in wills admits that she didn't know if her parents had one until her father's death.

When her father died in 2003, Barbara Kate Repa had been an attorney for 22 years. She'd written often about eldercare issues and coauthored advanced versions of WillMaker, computer software that allows people to make their own wills and other legal documents, such as advance health care directives.

But when it came to her own parents, Repa and her siblings had never quite managed to broach the topic of legal planning for end-of-life issues. Given her father's personality, they had just assumed he had all that taken care of.

"My dad was the world's most fastidious person," says Repa (in the photo above at her law school graduation, with parents Frank and Vera), "the kind who had all his hangers hanging the same way, his shoes all organized. He labeled the shelves in the medicine cabinet by various body parts, like 'head' and 'shoulders.'"

Frank Repa also had a lockbox of folders that he kept in a closet. "We all just assumed he was very carefully keeping track of the deeds to the house, his will -- all of that. When he died, we took it down and what was in there were $20 bills he was putting aside for each of the kids for Christmas. No wills, no nothing."

Repa, of course, was rather embarrassed. More importantly, she says, "It was a huge mess. We had to go to court and it took many months and lots of wrangling just to get things like his insurance and stock in my mom's name. If we had had just a couple of conversations about it, all of that could have been avoided."

Like many adult children, Repa and her siblings had gingerly avoided those conversations because they thought their parents didn't want to have them. "My parents are very Midwestern, so there's this sense that it's a private matter and you don't pry into things, and my dad was very sort of buttoned-up that way. I also think a lot of kids are hesitant to bring up that conversation because it feels like it makes them look grabby."

But Repa realized that ultimately her father would have wanted to leave things organized and taken care of. "I think we could have just approached the conversation that way," she says. "We should have said something like, 'Let's just make sure the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed here. Can we sit down and figure that out so that things happen the way you want them to happen?'"

Read the full interview with Barbara Kate Repa.