How My Family Prepared for the UnthinkableSubmitted by S. F. Ehrlich Associates, Inc. on April 2nd, 2018
March 31, 2018
By: John Zeltmann
My parents' estate planning attorney looked at me in disbelief: "Did you just say 'dry run'?"
My father had passed away ten days ago. My Mom, Sister, Aunt and I were sitting in a meeting room in the attorney’s office, reviewing my Dad's will and the immediate steps that had to be taken. Everyone was still in a bit of shock, reeling from the last few weeks. We had months to grapple with the prospect of life without Dad, but once he was gone, it still felt all too sudden.
But at that moment, we shared a wonderful laugh.
"Yes, a dry run," I said smiling. "It was his idea." When my Dad was first diagnosed with leukemia a little less than a year ago, he was bound and determined to beat the disease. Being the pragmatist that he was, however, he also wanted to make sure my Mom, Sister, and I were clear on the intentions outlined in his will should he lose the fight.
Shortly after his diagnosis, he and my Mom made good on this goal by asking my Sister and me to come to their home one Saturday morning to review the estate plan they had in place in the event my Dad was the first to die. Gathered around the same kitchen table we ate dinners at 20 years earlier, we conducted what my Dad described as a “dry run.” Should he not be here tomorrow, what do we do? Whom do we call? What is supposed to happen and when? If he's incapacitated, who serves as his healthcare proxy in the event my Mom is unable to do so? What lifesaving measures did he want to be taken if needed? Who has power of attorney over his assets in the event he can't act on his behalf when a financial matter comes up?
I’ve been down similar roads with clients who were dealing with or preparing for the death of a loved one - but the stakes were obviously different this time. The experience was awkward. Though uncomfortable, the meeting was invaluable in not only educating each member of our family on how best to implement my Dad’s wishes but also making sure we were all on the same page regarding how (and equally as importantly, why) the will was intended to function. The conversation gave us the opportunity to get comfortable (as much as possible) with a very uncomfortable topic.
I share this very personal (and very recent) experience hoping you might be prompted to ask yourself three questions:
- Is your estate plan up to do date? Many variables can impact the relevance of an estate plan, including changing estate tax laws (of which there have been many over the past several years), the birth of children or grandchildren, the transition from employment to retirement, and the death of a spouse. Consider scheduling some time with your estate planning attorney to see if a tune-up is necessary. (Spoiler alert: unless you’ve updated your documents within the last 3-4 years, you’re probably due.)
- What would your ‘dry run’ look like? Who would you invite? (If you have teenage children, they’re probably still too young for this discussion.) Where would you host the discussion? Family dynamics can be tricky, so you should be very thoughtful in how to arrange the meeting. What topics might you cover? (Tip: Prepare an agenda with notes so you spend time discussing all the relevant issues.)
- Are your loved ones clear on your intentions? If your estate isn’t being divided equally, is it important to you that your heirs understand why not? Might one child feel slighted over another? Additionally, you may be surprised to learn there is a significant divide between what Generations X and Y expect to receive from their Baby Boomer parents and what those parents intend to bequeath. According to a recent study by a money management firm (MFS)1, the majority of Gen X and Gen Y respondents expect to receive an inheritance to help with their own retirement. In contrast, less than half of Baby Boomers agreed it’s important to leave them one. Like it or not, your heirs may be anticipating a windfall as part of their own retirement plan, and it might be worth a conversation to remind them there are no guarantees.
This is a complicated and emotional topic, and we’re here to brainstorm with you on how best to approach it. For my family, the dry run was incredibly valuable, so much so that towards the end of our meeting, my parents’ estate planning attorney even said, “Wow, this is the most prepared family I’ve ever met!” We all took it as a compliment. I know my Dad would have been proud to hear it.