In a recent article in the Huffington Post financial columnist Don McNay tells the frustrating, sad, and “unusual” story of how the greater part of his mother’s and his sister’s estates ended up in the hands of people they would never have chosen to receive it… all because neither of them had a will or estate plan when they died.

When McNay’s mother died unexpectedly in April 2006 neither he nor his sister really worried about her lack of a will. After all, “her only asset was our childhood home, and my sister and I were her only children. We would split the ownership of the house equally.” McNay paid for the funeral, and “advanced the estate money to pay delinquent property taxes, some outstanding bills, and the mortgage on Mom’s house,” and he and his sister worked out an informal deal to even things up financially once the estate was settled and the house was mortgaged.

Tragically, his sister fell down some steps and died in October 2006, also without a will, and this is when the real trouble began. Although his sister had left her husband years before, they had never formally divorced; which meant that McNay’s sister’s share of their mother’s estate now belonged to her ex-husband, her adult son, and her minor daughter—and none of it would be used to reimburse McNay for what he had lent the estate.

McNay writes honestly and persuasively about his experience, and we recommend reading the entire article, but the long and short of it is this: After several rounds in court, after the involvement of several attorneys, and after being forced to sell the family home for less than what it was worth, “the person who got the most money from my mother’s estate was my former brother-in-law.”

Unfortunately, McNay’s story is all too common. Situations such as this one could be easily (and inexpensively) avoided simply by consulting an attorney and drawing up a simple will; and yet more than 60 percent of Americans don’t have wills. Whether it’s because they’re uncomfortable thinking about their own death, think they’re too young to worry about it, or simply feel they don’t have enough assets to worry about it, more than half of Americans today refuse to take the one simple step that can protect their families from heartache and expense.

We suspect that most people believe (erroneously) that this kind of thing just won’t happen to them. After all, as McNay writes in his article, “My family’s series of events was unusual,” but then again, “unusual things happen every day.”