Saturday, July 19, 2014

Estate Planning; planning for the unexpected as well as the inevitable ...

When I talk to clients about their Wills and related documents, they almost always approach it as if they have decades to live and they will have plenty of notice before they go off peacefully in their sleep. Let's face it, we all want to go that way and I believe that is a healthy belief. But we all know life doesn't always work that way and I need to get them to think about other possibilities.

This point was driven home for me personally this month through the tragic and violent death of my wife's cousins. In an instant, a truck crossed the center line and collided head on with their car as they were traveling to the shore for the weekend. In that moment, an elderly father lost his only two children, middle age-men lost their wives, and two young adults lost their mother.

When a generation of heirs are removed at one time, poorly planned estate documents can fail to fulfill your intentions. I'm not saying that is the case here because I don't know anything about the planning. I'm just commenting generally. This type of catastrophic event must be considered  when making these plans and this is the type of legal counsel we give when helping our clients.

But as we mourned with the family, I realized we may be missing an important part of planning by only discussing the legal aspect of this. When I started this post, all the possibilities for failure of an estate plan were swirling around my head. I planned to talk about that in more detail.  But as I have been going through this with my wife and her family I decided I want to jump to another area. The more personal side. There are things I mention in passing when I meet with people. But sometimes I feel could be intruding. I tell people, usually when talking about living wills and powers-of-attorney, the purpose of these documents are to make it easier for their family during times of crisis and emotional distress. But that counsel fails to capture the full gravity of unexpected end of life events.

To say our family was under a great deal of emotional stress would be an understatement. But this is not first time I've had a family member pass. All my grandparents have passed and I helped my Grandpa, Uncle and Dad plan my Grandma's funeral and memorial, and my Uncle and Dad with my Grandpa's, and finally my Dad's with my Sister and my Dad's significant other.

This time it seemed different. First of all, it was the matriarchs of two different families. They were the "doers" and "organizers" for the family. They maintained the rhythm of daily family life. The survivors were the Father, Husband/Son-in-Law, and a Grandchild/Child for each family.

Because of their ages, I suspect they never discussed what type of arrangement they would like for their memorials and I'm pretty sure there was little pre-planning as to funeral homes and such. The resulting memorials were something the family should be proud of and I'm sure the women would have been honored by the thought and effort the family expended to honor them.

But my point is watching them trying to put this together to honor their daughters/wives/mothers was like looking at a piece of torn fabric ... frayed ... damaged ... weakened ... so desperately trying to keep it together through their grief while trying to bring family and friends together. I could  not help thinking times like this could be just a little bit easier if people discuss funeral and memorial plans with their families.

That sounds relatively simple, right? While reminiscing with my wife about her cousins and in the spirit of my thoughts to discuss the end, I said to my wife, "At this time of my life, if I was to die suddenly, I would like to be buried in my [Air Force] uniform." I thought, good start and simple enough to follow and it was just one little aspect that I just took care of. Her response was, "Which one and where is it?" I know I want to be buried in my service dress uniform. She saw me in woodland camouflage, desert camouflage, and various blues uniforms. She has no reason to know which uniform let alone have any clue where all the items for my service dress are. So my "simple" request created several new questions for her. Maybe not so simple?

As a result, I have a new perspective on planning on the unexpected. I think planning on the inevitable is pretty standard. After this experience, my goal is to spend a little more time on the unexpected. It may not be a legal issue but I hope my clients benefit from the discussion.

(I apologize if this is a little disjointed and lengthy. I am trying to discuss a sensitive topic through a personal experience in a respectful and helpful manner)

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