Planning to Live
Every so often, a partner in my firm will approach me in a sheepish manner to say he or she hasn’t done any estate planning recently or, in extreme cases, doesn’t have a will at all. Sometimes clients admit the same. I suppose this has to do with a belief that planning for the inevitable brings it that much closer. No one has ever suggested that buying homeowner’s insurance makes it more likely that your house will burn down. Again, some people will say, “I’ll let my kids worry about it” or “I won’t be here, so why should I care?” As a lawyer with an active practice in estate disputes, I can only say, “Thank you.”
Nothing is more certain than that individuals have an obligation to their spouses and their children to make plans for what happens after they are gone. It’s not planning for your own death; it’s planning for what will happen to those you leave behind. Will the sum of what you have accomplished in your life cause happiness or heartache for your family? If you make no plans and tell no one what you want them to do, you will be throwing away much of what you have accumulated, because it will either be wasted in litigation or will have a negative impact on your family, making it, in effect, a negative asset. You wouldn’t do such a thing while you were still alive, so why leave that as a legacy?
This came to mind recently because we had a tragedy in my firm. One of my partners died last week after a long struggle with cancer at age 44 leaving a wife and three small children. I believe he had planned carefully, because his illness lasted several years and its eventual result became clearer in recent months. But it has made a number of us, myself included, think about what our spouses and children might be faced with if we died. Several colleagues have asked for assistance with estate planning. Others have asked if their retirement accounts and life insurance would be sufficient to support their spouse and family.
Here’s a suggestion that everyone should consider, especially if you are the one handling financial matters in your family. Begin a notebook of financial information to be available to your spouse or other family members. One page should list your assets: home, retirement accounts, bank accounts, etc. On this page should be contact information for your financial adviser, accountant or other people who should be contacted. Another page should have all of your insurance information: life, health, disability, long-term care, homeowners; again, with the necessary contact information. I suggest a page with a calculation of the income that will be available to survivors, and another that lists the monthly expenses that have to be paid. If you don’t know what it costs to manage your home and other living expenses, you should know that. Perhaps you will add other pages, adding burial plans and other things that the family should know.
Somebody, probably Lincoln, said that we cannot escape the future. I would add that we need not dwell on it constantly, but we should plan while we are alive to help the lives of those we love be as comfortable and happy as we can make them. So, careful estate planning is not planning to die; it’s planning to live.
Robert H. Louis