By Martha Hartney
Planning for Death Gives Us Courage to Live FullySince childhood, death has been kind of a constant companion for me—I’ve lost friends and family, had older parents that I constantly worried would die early (they didn’t). I’ve learned that keeping death in the forefront of my mind has the effect of making me live very carefully and fully. When I got out of law school, as a newly divorced mother of two boys, I wanted to serve families who are doing their best in the world. It seemed like estate planning would be a good practice through which I could support the betterment of the world, one parent at a time.
I found out later that planning for death and disability is a very powerful moment in a parent’s life. It’s the one time when we take stock of where we’ve been, what we have accomplished, and what we want to do with our precious time on earth before it all comes to a screeching halt. When parents who have children at home plan, they have the experience of a great weight being lifted off their shoulders. They know that if something happens to them, at least their family could go on, that their children would be cared for. When we can let our worry go, we experience a powerful return of our energy and get back our courage to live a full life.
The Difference Between Wealth and Money
In our practice, we define “wealth” as the consciousness that resides in our body. We define “money” as the fuel that propels the body through life, having the experiences and valuable lessons that our consciousness-dwelling bodies have, gathering our wisdom along the way. By this definition, true estate planning must also send our inner treasure trove of wisdom into the future, as well as provide financial resources and caretakers for our families.
As an estate planner, I would be failing miserably if I did not give our clients an opportunity to transport their teachings and wisdom into the future using technology. We can use our digital wealth to make sure that children and grandchildren can see, hear, and learn from their ancestors. So important is this to our clientele that we devote a significant amount of our firm’s resources to ensuring these stories are captured and transported into the future.
Common Estate Planning Mistakes
The mistakes my firm has seen would curl your hair. But the first and biggest mistake is doing nothing. The courts are clogged with people who figured they could procrastinate on their planning only to find that life has a different idea. We call this, “The Do Nothing Plan.” The Do Nothing Plan works. There’s a system designed to handle it–it’s called the probate system–which is a court-supervised disposition or management of someone’s estate, that caters first to one’s creditors, and only after to their family. By failing to plan, we assure that at some point, someone will have to be in front of a judge. It’s that simple.
There are far too many mistakes to include here. But here are a few:
Trying to DIY an estate plan.
DIYing might work for a few people (though I don’t know any). It’s kind of like trying to perform an appendectomy on yourself. People who DIY either spend precious time and energy researching something they can’t possibly become an expert in, which leaves their families at risk all the while; or they actually do it themselves with forms they find in the office store or online. I have yet to read any online forms that are very good. Passable, maybe, and rarely that. And the DIY plan certainly does not come with the expertise a strong planner can offer.
Not having a revocable living trust when your assets reach a modestly successful level.
I believe some people are simply mistrustful when an attorney says they should have a revocable living trust. In my experience, there is no more powerful way to maintain governance over one’s own life than a revocable living trust. Many families would be well served by living trusts. Not everyone, but many.
Believing when someone says “probate in this state is easy.”
This is pure fiction. No court proceeding is easy unless you’re an attorney and you know the ropes. Why some lawyers are fond of saying this is probably because they heard it somewhere and are parroting it. Or…they are probate attorneys who will benefit more when they can charge their hourly rate for taking an estate through probate. Wealthy families rarely allow their estates to go through probate. Families of moderate means should not either. Families are better served by keeping their affairs privately managed by carefully chosen successors using mindful planning techniques. Letting our estates go through probate is leaving a mess for someone to clean up later. It’s sloppy.
Waiting until it’s too late.
We often get panicked calls from spouses saying they need a power of attorney because an injury or illness has landed their spouse in the hospital. Or from an adult child with a mother or father who is mentally slipping and can’t manage their own affairs and they need an estate plan pronto. I’m sorry to tell you, there is no emergency estate plan like this. Estate plans are preventive only. Once a problem has started, it’s very difficult and sometimes impossible to stop that problem from entering the court system.
Failing to transfer wealth in a thoughtful and intentional way.
If you search for Marilyn Monroe’s or James Dean’s estates online, you’ll read how failure to plan thoughtfully lead to their wealth being lost in most unsettling ways. Most of us aren’t famous, but we still need to use a long lens in deciding how our financial resources will travel into the future. How will it affect children and grandchildren? Will it help or harm? Inadvertent effects of poorly designed plans can cripple an heir’s life.
Believing that estate planning is painful like a root canal.
Okay, working with some lawyers is like getting a root canal. I know. I was a consumer of legal services long before I was a lawyer. Ugh! It’s like chewing paper! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many lawyers are pleasant to be around, sometimes fun. We make our planning process about as enjoyable as it can be. We take it seriously, but not so seriously that we can’t laugh and have a good time at it. It is intricate. It is detailed. And, when you get it done, it’s a weight off your shoulders that feels so good, it’s almost hard to believe we let the fears of leaving behind a mess stay for so long.
Gratitude is the Key to Excellence
I’m a fan of Brene Brown’s work. She observes in her book “The Gift of Imperfect Parenting” there is one difference between entitlement and privilege. Gratitude. Gratitude is a skill we can cultivate like any other. Parents can teach their children this skill—but only if they cultivate it in themselves first. It’s when we believe that the world owes us something, that our life is not good enough as it is, or wealthy enough, or popular enough, that people get lost in the weeds. Gratitude is the antidote to the soul illness of entitlement. By taking notice each day of the blessings we have in our lives, then what springs from our hearts is a desire for more of that—the pursuit of excellence. In our definition, the pursuit of wealth becomes making the most excellent self we can possibly offer the world. What else is there really? My tip is to wake up every day, no matter how messed up one’s life feels, and notice ten blessings within your perception. Then throughout the day, pay attention to your surroundings. Not just passing attention, but focused, clear, directed attention. Notice the intricate veins in a leaf, the precise shade of blue in the sky peaking between clouds, the quality of light as it passes through a window. Life happens all around us while we’re all running around thinking that life is happening in our heads. But stopping for these brief glimpses of beauty, we increase the vital life energy within us and around us. Increased vitality leads to positive actions that have generous effects. Gratitude is the key excellence.
Adding Meaning to Your Estate Plan
There has not been one client who didn’t yearn for a sense of meaning in the context of estate planning. I’m on a mission to educate lawyers that people are longing to be supported in deeper ways as they address the certainty of their own deaths. We look death right in the eye when we do an estate plan. When a lawyer fails to “feel into” this vulnerable place with their clients, they only solidify the belief that lawyers are unfeeling and not to be trusted. Some lawyers simply do not have the skill to meet their clients in a human way. That’s unfortunate and a lost opportunity to truly enjoy the work we do for people. My firm’s practice is itself grounded in gratitude. Our process for harvesting our clients’ wisdom and experience fosters their gratitude for where they’ve been in life. Even when it has been abusive, deficient, or filled with challenge, each client has a chance to know the fullness of their experience, to be seen by a trusted advisor who cares deeply for them and can reflect to them their rightness of being. Some of this may sound “woo-woo”. But at a practical level, this is what people want, need, and will reap many benefits from when they hire an estate planner who thinks like I do. A tip for consumers is to interview qualified estate planners to see who offers a unique and meaningful client experience, rather than simply document preparation. There are plenty of document preparers, plenty of excellent legal technicians out there. Too few are paying attention to the deeper work around meaning. I suggest asking straight up what offerings an attorney has to ensure that not just financial wealth is passed on to the future but the real, inner wealth as well.
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