Would a will have helped in S-Town? YES! A will definitely would have made things a lot better for the people John B. McLemore left behind.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be explaining the different legal aspects of what happened toward the end of S-Town, and how most of it could have been prevented. If you don’t want to know what happens, then don’t read these posts! This week, we are starting off with how a will could have helped John’s probate process in S-Town be less of an S-Show.

A Look At What Happened With No Will In The S-Town Podcast

With no will in place, the cousins were able to come in a take whatever they wanted. Technically, if you do not have an estate plan, the law will write one for you. And, as you heard, any discrepancies between parties is going to be an unpleasant experience.

The gist of what happens when the state makes your estate plan (including your will) for you is that your relatives or spouse inherit. The normal order of who inherits first is:

  1. Spouse
  2. Children
  3. Grandchildren (then great-grandchildren, etc.)

If none of the above are alive, then it passes to:

  1. Parents or grandparents
  2. Brothers and sisters
  3. Nieces and nephews
  4. Cousins

This order may seem practical, but as we saw in John’s scenario, it was terrible and not what he wanted at all. This law-defined pattern can be changed as much as you want with a simple will. The above order is very problematic in many cases, not only John’s. For example, if you are on a second marriage or have children from a prior relationship, your children can quickly become disinherited. If you have relatives you would rather leave out of your will (like John’s cousins) then you have to specifically mention that or else they will inherit. If you want to leave something to charity or have someone take care of your immaculate maze garden you have built, that needs to be spelled out. The list goes on and on, and I will not bore you with the problems here. For now, know they exist and are numerous.

One other very important part of having a will is that you get to name who is in charge of making sure your wishes are carried out. This person is called your Personal Representative. Since John didn’t have a will, the judge just named whoever was related that showed up in court that day. It turns out that was Rita, who John never would have put in charge and didn’t want to receive anything according to the show. John could have easily named Tyler, or anyone else for that matter, if he simply would have written things down.

Finally, the very family John wanted to investigate for murder in the beginning of the podcast is the family that ended up with all of John’s land. There is no way in any alternate universe that John would have wanted that to happen. If you research pictures of John’s land, the maze in particular, it seems as though it will not make it. The end of S-Town seems to allude to the fact that the land will probably hold parking lots or a Wal-Mart someday. Obviously not the ideal use John would have had in mind.

What Could Have Happened With A Will?

With a will, John McLemore could have directed anything he wanted to whoever he wanted. This would have cut the cousins out of things completely. They would have showed up in town and then been quickly turned down from receiving anything by a judge.

Further, John would have been able to appoint who he wanted as his Personal Representative. This is the person who is in charge of the probate process. Basically, that means the Personal Representative makes the will work. They find all the assets, value them, deal with any creditors and distribute everything per the terms of the will. Rita would have not been able to be appointed as Personal Representative and would not have been able to pocket the money from the sale of the land. More importantly, she wouldn’t have been able to sell it in the first place.

Don’t fall victim to the same trap. Don’t let the “evil” relatives in your life receive your hard-earned assets. Most importantly, don’t leave the “Tylers” in your life out in the cold by themselves. Keep in mind, if John had a will that named Tyler as a beneficiary, none of the things Tyler did could have been crimes. They would have been things he was required to do.

It is truly too bad that John never got around to putting a will in place. It is the excuse I hear far too often in my line of work as an estate planning lawyer. People put it off and put it off until it’s too late. If John would have just made himself draft a plan, perhaps we would be able to tour his maze, to see his clocks, and perhaps S-Town would be on its way to being more of a good town that upheld his legacy.