Colleen Stiles, one of the stars of the LegalZoom television commercials, sat down at the blue table with her cup of tea, gushing about how she and her children got their wills at LegalZoom.com. In that short snippet, we saw a proud mother, who planned not only for herself, but for her college-age children as well.
What Colleen didn't know at the time, is that she was about to embark on a powerful life lesson that brought the significance of that act into clear focus. After the lights went off and the production wrapped, she headed home to Colorado with the thought to address a nagging health concern. Only days later, she would find herself in a fight for her life.
In this candid interview, Colleen shares with us why she decided to get a will, why her children decided to get a will and what her experience taught her about the importance of getting a will. Unlike many people, she didn't get a will because of a specific event in her life. She simply believed it was the right thing to do. That belief—or intuition perhaps—paid off as she was able to experience what having a will—and other estate planning documents—was all about.
What was the deciding factor that made you get a will?
Colleen: I have had a will for a long time. The first will I ever had cost me six thousand dollars. It was right before my kids were born. Kevyn is my daughter and Keegan is my son. We did it because that's what you do when you have kids, right? You do this will. So that hung around for a long time. Then when I went through a divorce, I did another will. Because that's what you do when you get a divorce. If nothing else, you're not going to leave everything to your ex-husband.
I'm a professional woman—I was amazed at how many professional women like me, my peers, didn't have wills or had wills from ex-husbands or had wills that they have when their kids were little. Knowing that you want your kids to be raised by your sister, if something happens to you when they are five, is very different than what happens when your kids are seventeen.
How did you find LegalZoom?
Colleen: A couple of years ago, I had briefly remarried for the second time. Unfortunately, divorce prompts taking care of your affairs. My kids were over eighteen, and I don't want to spend five grand on a will.
So a friend of mine is an attorney. I said, “Hey I heard about this site LegalZoom. Go check it out.” Well, he now sends all his clients to LegalZoom. He charges twenty five bucks for a consult, a fifteen-minute consult, and when he finds out that what they really need is—whatever—he sends them to LegalZoom. Then they come back for bigger issues. He looked at it and said, “You know, Colleen, I've looked at all their documents, I have done all the due diligence and it's a good company. It's solid.” I did my will, my power of attorney and healthcare directives [living will].
What led your children to get wills?
Colleen: Two years ago my son came home and said, “I have joined the Air Force to be a Pararescue man.” The PJs, as they are called, are the highest special forces in the Air Force. They are ones that jump out of planes in scuba gear and recover bodies or save downed pilots. My heart fell out of my chest and my stomach hit the floor. I thought, “I am going to make sure he does his affairs. I am going to make sure he faces this part of his life.” It was the best way I could figure out how to do that.
Keegan went to the basic training graduation at St. Antonio. I didn't make a big deal of it, but we sat down with my laptop in the hotel room, and we went to LegalZoom. I said, “Okay buddy, this isn't going to take very long. You have to make some decisions. You can change it. We are going to pay to have it stored on the site. You can get access to it whenever you want to. I know the Air Force will do this for you, but I want you to do it.” He was in uniform, having graduated that day. I did that on purpose.
Then his sister is going to New Zealand for school. She is just getting ready to graduate. She has traveled her whole life all around, but I am like, “Listen, you are twenty one. You are going to New Zealand. You better have this done. I can't get your body if I am not your power of attorney.” She said, “Okay.” So we sat down and did it together.
There is something about having a kid look at the screen. Not making it a big emotional deal, this is just important. It was a parenting tool. It taught them how to ask questions about their own life, because I wasn't the one asking the questions, the screen was. It's so user-friendly that all I had to do was sit there. And then the documents come and you teach them how to get a notary.
How did you get on the LegalZoom TV commercial?
Colleen: One day I am sitting at my office and the email blast comes out, “If you have a testimonial, win five thousand dollars.” I thought, you know what, I should write about Keegan. So I did.
For two years, I had been breaking my tailbone—and I wasn't an athlete, I was only traveling on airplanes. I couldn't figure out why. I thought this is just very odd and my doctor thought maybe I had osteoporosis. Pain started to shoot down my left leg, and I thought, “I am so tired.” I left a job that I loved and I just was home.
Then I get this call to come out to California. I could hardly move. I had to really ‘cowboy up' to do the commercial and put on my best face. I was in excruciating pain. When I came back from the commercial, I thought, “I've got to do something.”
So what happened after the commercial?
Colleen: What happened is on February 4th, my doctor said that nothing could make the swelling go down and he had me get an MRI. So I had an MRI on a Thursday night. I wasn't twenty minutes away from the hospital, and they called me and said, “Please come back.” My stomach hit the floor. I knew something was wrong. And Friday morning, I went to get my own report. The whole first page was normal, normal, normal and the whole second page was, “Oh wow, we don't know what it is, and we don't know where something is wrong.”
I had a huge tumor in my coccyx, and I had a tumor in my left pelvis that was taking over my sciatica nerve, and had a tumor in my right pelvis, taking over my right sciatica nerve. I ultimately had a tumor in my left femur and my right clavicle.
The MRI doctor said, “I have not seen anything like this.” So Friday by 11 o'clock I called my significant other, Eric, and I said, “Something is wrong. Come back from work.” I called my father, who is a physician in Minnesota and he called the Mayo Clinic, and on Monday morning I walked in to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
I was there a week and half of testing and was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. “You know there are only four stages,” the doctor said, “We have not really seen it present this way, these tumors. Spinal fluid was clear, but it's so close, you're going to have chemo tomorrow.” So I had my first chemo on February 10th.
It was eight and half hours long and on the 11th of February I flew home alone to Colorado, and I went through six chemotherapy treatments of eight and half hours apiece and three hospitalization stays. At the end of March/beginning of April, I went back to the Mayo Clinic for a checkup. The doctor walks in and looks at me and says, “Gone.” I said, “What?” She says, “It's gone. Your cancer was so aggressive. When it's aggressive, it eats everything. It was so aggressive we gave it chemo and chomp, chomp, chomp—.” I went back to the clinic the end of July, and it was clear. I've lost sixty-five pounds. I am walking fifty minutes a day. I am exercising. I feel like a million bucks.
Was this the reason you got a will?
Colleen: Sometimes people say they have a near death experience, they have somebody in their family who dies, or they get sick and then they get better, and they say it was a wakeup call—I'm going to change my life, I am going to do things that I want to do. I didn't need a wakeup call—I was already awake. I didn't need this experience to teach me about the joy of living—I live in joy.
I didn't do a will for my kids because something happened. Doing a will is the right thing to do. It doesn't have to be a big deal. Disciplining your kid doesn't have to take up your whole day. It's just the right thing to do and it's easy.
Well for me, when I went through this experience, Thursday night is the MRI, Friday I get the news, Sunday I flew to the Mayo Clinic and on Monday morning I am at the Mayo Clinic. Well if I didn't have a will/healthcare directive or anything else, you know what happens? Number one, there is no time to hire a lawyer or do anything in between. You are not in any mental stage to do it.
It's just numbing and shocking, and then you get to the clinic and you go to register, and you know what they say? “Do you have a healthcare directive? Do you have a will? So now here you are. You've got family. Everybody's scared—everybody is around you. That's not the time to deal with it.
I had a LegalZoom folder in a LegalZoom FedEx envelope that had LegalZoom on it. I was very excited. I went over and grabbed the folder and threw it in my suitcase. “Do you have a healthcare directive?” “Yeah, I do. Here it is.” “Do you have a will?” “I do. Here it is.” “Do you have a living will, in case you've got to pull the plug?” “Uh huh, here it is.” Done. It empowered me.
It's not even being proactive—it's just living life on life's terms. It's living the way I want to live; which is happy, joyous and free. I am just that way. So when this happened, I was able to focus on staying in a positive zone, listening to the doctor and my family didn't freak out because I had it all done. I talked to a lot of people sitting in the chemotherapy chair. Their families are worried and the families then decide that they have to do a will, the families decide they'd better get this paperwork done. You are not going to go to a major clinic without a healthcare directive. They will just give you a sheet of paper and say fill it out. Is that really what we want to be doing, if you get bad news and you have to act on it? Do you really want to be standing at Cooper Clinic in Dallas trying to figure out your healthcare directive?
What did you like about getting a will at LegalZoom?
It's that it was motivated by my kids, it was easy, it was affordable and it was accurate. It was industry-standard material. And I did it. Then when life happened to me, I was able to focus on life. I didn't have to focus on some of these things that can divert you from what your real attention is on.
In chemo, I got bigger and uglier; I got bald as a bat. I was so swollen, and I have never been that sick. I was so sick that I said to my friends, “I don't need you to pray for me, I want you to pray as if you were me.” Because I lost all sense of emotional self. You're so sick. Is that the time you want to be doing your will? I don't think so. Is that the time you want to say who is going to get my signet ring? The time you want to say who's going to get my signet ring is when you're healthy, and you are happy and you are in a good spot and you can listen to your internal spirit.
You took the steps and you got to the right people who got you the answers, and that takes some initiative.
Colleen: It takes initiative. There is a huge market of people like me, functioning in emergent society, just trying to make a difference in the world. I really notice when people make a difference in my life.
For me, LegalZoom was the company at the crossroads. It meant something to me as a parent to do that will with both kids. It meant something to me to be a part of sharing that story with other people. And then it meant something to me when I found out that this company is authentic, and mission-driven. You don't find many mission-driven companies that truly are boots-to-the-ground.
I didn't have this tsunami of grief that came out when suddenly I had to do one of those things. I have seen people at the Mayo Clinic be given a healthcare directive. Go sit in a chemotherapy unit and watch people having to, I mean it's something.
When I threw that folder in my suitcase and went to the Mayo Clinic, and when I stood there and said, “Yeah it's here,” I didn't have to think about it. That's the thing, it wasn't a deal, it wasn't important at the time because it was done, it was transparent and that's what wills and healthcare directives and all those things should be. They shouldn't be something that's a big sign in front of your face that says Stop. It should be the road you are on. Like health. You exercise because you are on that road of living your life, and you pay your bills, and you get these things done. It was transparent, and it didn't end up being all about that.
How do your kids feel about having will at such a young age—do their peers have wills or do they tell their peers about having a will or do they even tell people at all?
Colleen: It's funny, even my daughter said, “Gee, Mom, I kind of made fun of you for making us to do these wills, but it really is important.” My daughter had a hard time initially. Her only sibling joined the Air Force and could be killed in service and then the mother is diagnosed with cancer. Well, that made her look at her own mortality. But you know what wills do? It's like they throw a shot over the bow. I know they have had friends that have gone on and done wills at LegalZoom. It now becomes part of their working tools, if you will. My son says, “You know, Mom, it's just important to have things squared away.” I think that's Air Force talk, you know, military. Got to have things squared away.
To watch Colleen's television commercial for LegalZoom, click here
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