This month my mother passed away. It was a painful experience, but with most “mom experiences,” I learned many valuable lessons from her – lessons that reinforced my Estate Planning work. I have been working with families to create and share legacies, through Estate Planning for almost a decade. And, my experiences have reinforced the practices I employ and proclaim.
I learned some very valuable lessons, which are listed below:
1. Conversations: Have important conversations with your parents, when you are children and when you grow up. Many families do not involve children in their conversations, especially when it has to do with Estate Planning and finances because it’s “grown folks” business. But, I have had adults in their 40’s ask me to talk to their parents because they thought an “expert” could help them explain to their parents how important Estate Planning really is.
Admittedly, my mom was the same way. Even as she became fragile, she was not willing to have those “types” of conversations with me. You see, my mom was a fiercely independent woman. In fact, she was quite accomplished in many areas of her life. She was also an incredible community activist.
However, she did not have a financial planner, so she made her financial decisions alone. Well, part of my personal grieving process was to uncover the secret pockets and panels that held her financial information. Well, being both a professional and daughter, I asked both my mom and dad about their Estate Plans, and my mom assured me that they had taken care of them with another attorney.
2. Review Your Plan: Review your Estate Plan every year. Many planners recommend that you review your plan periodically, or with each life-altering event. However, I encourage folks to review their Estate Plans annually. I believe that if you look at your plan every year at the same time, you will have a constant reminder that it is time to update your information on it. Truthfully, as I have grown older, I realize that weeks can turn into months that turn into years very quickly. Time does not pause because we would like it to.
My mom’s Estate Plan was crafted more than a decade before she passed away, and because it had not been reviewed for some time, some of her assets were no longer assets. I don’t even have the same name that I did ten years ago. So, I had to locate my name change information, in order just to manage affairs that my mother had listed in my former name.
3. Financial Impact: It is important that you fully understand the financial impact of the appointment. I encourage people to think clearly about the people in their lives, before appointing someone to serve, as their personal representative or trustee. While my mom was loved by four children, who are now adults, we all bring different skills, attributes, and capacities to the table. These types of considerations should have an impact on who you appoint as your personal representative or trustee.
The responsibility of serving, as personal representative, may come with a significant financial responsibility. My mom did not have a pre-paid funeral, so a financial commitment was required. She lived on the West Coast, and my sister lives in South Africa. Two of us live on the East Coast, so time was of the essence when managing the personal matters and settling my mom’s Estate. Fortunately, the timing afforded her personal representative considerable time on the West Coast, although she lives on the East Coast.
4. Understand the Impact: In other words, understand the impact of the grieving process. Each one of my brothers and my sister handles grief differently. I tend to revert to the planning mode, as I have through most crises. But, my brothers and sisters do not respond to grief the same way. So, this time was particularly challenging for us. We did not have the same emotional experiences, therefore, our response was different. It would have been nice if there had been some level of synchronicity because it would have helped things along, but, sadly, that was not to be.
As we appoint people to serve in different capacities, think about how people in your life have responded to crises and distress. Then, think about that time as a time of distress. I have worked with many people, who felt that they would be insulting a family member if they did not appoint them in key roles. Remember, this appointment is a heavy responsibility, so be cautious when selecting the people, who will represent your legacy once you have passed. So, to sum it up, Estate Planning moved from strategy to implementation in a very personal way for me this month. The importance of it all affirmed my commitment to serve. And, as a result, I plan to push harder for family communication, revisiting, and evaluating each step.
It is far more important to be thoughtful about who you are asking to serve and their capacity than to be nice to believe who wants to be asked to serve.