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Listen: More Than 51,000 Texans Have Died From COVID-19. Many Of Them Didn’t Have Wills.

Graciela Correa Morales died from COVID-19 at 72. She hadn't drawn up a will before her death, so her family is trying to figure out what to do with her belongings and assets.
Gabriel C. Pérez/Texas Standard
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Graciela Correa Morales died from COVID-19 at 72. She hadn't drawn up a will before her death, so her family is trying to figure out what to do with her belongings and assets.

In Texas, wills are not legally required. But dying without one means greater anguish and expense for family members.

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From Texas Standard:

Graciela Correa Morales died from COVID-19 almost a year ago, and her family still struggles with her absence.

The San Antonio mother, who died at 72, was always so full of life. Her middle son, Omar Correa Morales, says his mom’s voice was tender and friendly.

“She would always leave me voicemails, and I would always delete them; I messed up,” Correa Morales said. “I might have some old phones there and hopefully I can find one because I really miss her voice.”

But Correa Morales is not only looking for old phones; he has also been searching for important documents because his mom’s legal affairs are still not in order. Like more than half of all Americans, Graciela Correa Morales died without a will.

“She already knew she had to get it, but she never went. I couldn’t force her to go, otherwise the rest of the family would’ve thought that I am pressuring her. Sometimes people fight over things like that,” Correa Morales said.

Normally, in the United States, the older you are, the more likely you are to have a will. That’s according to a 2016 Gallup poll. The majority of Americans 65 and older – close to 70% – have one, while just 14% of people in their 30s have a written will.

That has been a problem during the pandemic because Texans of all age groups experienced sudden death. So far, more than 51,000 people in the state have died from COVID-19. And many of them left this world without any instructions to loved ones about debts and personal property.

In Texas, wills are not legally required. But dying without one means possessions will be divided according to state law and not according to a person’s directions.

Legal experts like Jo Anne Garcia recommend that everyone plan for what happens to their belongings, money and property after they die, regardless of how much or how little they have.

“It’s almost more important for individuals who don’t have a large estate to ensure that they do prepare for end of life,” Garcia said.

Garcia is a probate judge in Hidalgo County in South Texas. She and Charlie Aguiñaga, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, help people make end-of-life decisions.

Writing wills can be costly. Attorneys can charge between $300 and $500. But your loved ones will likely spend more time and money resolving issues with your estate after you die without one.

There are some low-cost alternatives to having a will drawn up by a lawyer. A free option are handwritten wills, also known as holographic wills, which are legal in Texas but often contested because heirs can simply argue the handwriting on the will does not match the handwriting of the deceased person. Wills through online services like Legal Zoom are also less costly.

Regardless of the type of will, Garcia recommends people put it in a safe place and tell their loved ones where it is. The idea is to make things easy for those who survive you.

“Even the simplest thing of writing a list of where your insurance is, writing a list of all your accounts,” Garcia said, will help.

The list should include pin numbers and passwords.

For people like Omar Correa Morales whose loved one died without a will, Aguiñaga said, “Don’t panic.”

“Go through their mail and look for bank statements. And, actually, don’t hide from the creditors, and determine whether you have to see a lawyer,” he said.

Debts such as a car, a mortgage, student loans and credit cards don’t automatically disappear just because the person responsible has died. The debt may fall to a surviving family member. And if you can’t afford a lawyer, Texas Legal Aid can help you figure out if you will end up needing to go to court.

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Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.