Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Planning for the Future - Firearms and your Estate Planning

It always starts the same...

"Mr. Kennedy?"

"Yes, how can I help you?"

"Well... my husband passed away."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Thank you. It's just that he was a gun collector and..."

The rest of the conversation usually pans out the same way. Almost every time. The husband had lots of guns - maybe 20, maybe 50, maybe 100, maybe more. He died. She didn't realize how many he had, what they are, what they are worth, and (most importantly) who to trust.

The reason I get this call is that some buddy of the late Mr. Hoplophile is nosing around, knows a little (or a lot) about the collection and wants to help the widow by giving her some money to help her out by buying one (or more) of the guns - with a pained expression and at a cost WELL below retail. I received calls like this about once or twice a month while I was the Curator at the Cody Firearms Museum. I still get them through friends and acquaintances now. Maybe I seem to be the trustable sort. Maybe it's the boyish good looks, maybe it's the glazed look and the paunch, I don't know.

The sad thing is that it is preventable. As fanatical as many of us are with our guns while we are alive, we sure don't seem to care much about when we're dead. This needs to change.

Why is it always the Gun Guys?

I'll tell you why. It's because we did all we could to beg, borrow, and steal to get them in the first place and we don't want the government (or anyone else for that matter) to take them from us.

Take the guy from the opening scenes of Red Dawn for a case in point. Cue it up to 1:30 and enjoy. I'll wait.

Now. That guy isn't too far off from the truth. I have known... well... not this guy, but many like him. According to the American Firearms Institute (an organization devoted to defending gun rights) "there are 250 - 280 million firearms in the US" and "40 - 50% of US homes own a firearm, that's 120 - 150 million people". Easy math. that averages out to 2 per household in about half of the homes in America. However, as with most averages, there are outliers. I know many folks who own just one gun. I also know a couple guys who could outfit a small Latin American country, so long as they don't mind bolt actions from the two World Wars.

What is common amongst all of these people? They will not give up their gun(s) easily. If they are like this while they are alive, why do it when they are dead?

I don't know. 

I don't know if it is a lack of planning, an unrealistic belief that they will always have time to divest themselves of the collection before they pass on, or just simply believing that it will work itself out on it's own as part of the rest of the estate. But it drives me crazy and tells me that they care more for their guns than they do for their wife and family.  


Many gun owners arm themselves initially because they feel they need to TCB - Take Care of Business. This could be defending life and limb from an intruder or getting groceries through the barrel of a gun. However, we all protect ourselves and our families in other, less dramatic ways. Unless you are supporting your self solely on Social Security, you are taking care of business - financial business. 
Elvis (Mr. TCB) and a few of his guns - note the Luger on the left and the suppressor on the top right

Think about it. We all plan in the boring, mundane, "Gee, I hope the economy doesn't tank again before I retire or die, taking my nest egg with it" way. We set up retirement plans, 401(k)s, investments, stocks, bonds, annuities, and all sorts of other things that make me fall asleep. Some of these guys have retirement plans that cover EVERYTHING - except their guns. No plan, no inventory, no appraisals (scrawling a list of 100% values from the Blue Book doesn't count). I don't get it. But I have come to terms that it happens. Every day.

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail

Regardless of how you pass on, not having a plan for your guns is a bad, bad thing. Think about it. No matter how much warning you have, you cannot prepare. You die in your sleep of a heart attack (you eat red meat and stay off the treadmill, right?), you get an aneurysm on the floor of the gun show (we've all seen prices on guns that could lead to this...), or you stroke out on the golf course. 

Just kidding. That last one never happens to gun guys. They stroke out during a round of Sporting Clays.

During any of those, there is no time to prepare. But that's OK, you have emphysema, ALS (I know way too much about that one now), or the big 'C'. I'll have plenty of time. Sure. Once you get past "Depression" and on to "Acceptance", you have a short window. By that time, though, you will be hip-deep in medical bills, clinic appointments, and last checks on your bucket list. There will be time to take care of the guns later - besides, you may get better. You're right. You might. Lots don't.

So. While you are still healthy, wealthy, and (hopefully) wise, here are some things to do to prep your collection for your demise, sudden or otherwise.
  1. Inventory - Get a list with make, model, and serial number (separate from any bound book you may keep as an FFL or C&R). Tag the guns - you can use those little hangtags they sell at most office supply stores. For Pete's sake, no tape, no markers, no pens, pencils, sticky dots, or other adhesive badness. 
  2. Photograph - Get digital pictures of it all. Use a generic mount (you can use a range sled/sandbags with a nice cloth over the mount). Get both sides and necessary details (barrel address/sns are not necessary but inscriptions/engraving are). Have a card in frame showing make, model, and sn. Use decent lighting - a shop light behind the camera on the left and right should be good - prevents flash shadows. Use a tripod. Use a neutral background - not a plaid tablecloth. VERIFY that all of the pictures are clear.
  3. Appraise - Get a legitimate appraisal. If it is a few nice guns, you can Blue Book it. Write it down. Again, record make, model, and serial number with the value, the source for your estimation, and why you think it fits in a certain grade/%. Depending on the size or value of your collection (and your insurer's limits), you may want to go to one of the major national GUN auction firms or a private appraiser. Repeat this at least every five years - or if something happened that would otherwise increase the value of your collection. Legitimate appraisers will charge you for their time, per gun, etc. If they charge a percentage, they benefit from high-balling your collection. 
  4. Insure - Theft, fire, or any number of other things can happen. Now that you know what you have, insure it. Most reputable companies have a firearms policy rider. Boost the limit to whatever you are willing to go to, not surpassing the value of the collection. If you think the value has gone up, get it reappraised and insure accordingly.
  5. Secure - Keep it locked up. Keep it in a safe. Keep it in a locked display case. Keep it in a locked room. Ask a trusted (industrious) buddy to figure out how he would steal your guns. Fix what he would do. Why? Because someone will try to steal them (with a check or otherwise) after you are gone. Also - make sure someone trusted stays at the house while you are in the hospital or the casket.
  6. Allocate - Figure out where they go. Now. Just like anything else in your will (the house, property, etc.), this should be established well before you are de-established. Which ones go to your son or daughter. Which ones go to which friends. Make conditions (with a list of prices) to allow private sales (helps with the 'buddy' mentioned above). ID which guns go to an auction house. Figure out which ones go to a museum.  Figure out which ones go to other non-profits (If you plan to send them to the NRA, let the NRA know first).
  7. Note on Museums - Make arrangements with any museum AHEAD of time. I have had to refuse gifts from the deceased because of conditions they set. There are things responsible museums cannot agree to, in good faith. I am certain they were small issues that could have been resolved simply through a discussion beforehand, but legal conditions are exactly that.
  8. Organize - Keep all of the documentation on ALL of the above in hardcopy and on a USB thumb drive. Keep these in at least two places - with the guns and off site (safe deposit box if you have it). 
I recognize that some of this appears to be expensive. That's because it is. Ask yourself how much you spend on investment counseling, overhead fees on your IRA, or your accountant. Now ask how much you are willing to spend to take care of your family in this way.

Step up. Do it.

Now, on to the ammunition...


Ceilon Aspensen said...

GREAT blog post! And on a topic I'd never given any consideration (until now). Good advice, and we're taking it! :-)

BuffaloBob said...

Great advice, Dave! The same holds true for other collectibles; pocket knives, coins, books, etc. The more secretive the collector (often the ol' man), the bigger the headache for the surviving spouse and kids.Collecting is a great hobby, but if you don't prepare for either your end or the collections, the grief of your passing will be compounded by dealing with the collection