A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend of mine. To protect the not-quite-innocent, let’s call him “Tom.” I have only seen Tom once since we left college, and that was several years ago. Through the power of social media, we recently realized we lived and worked less than twenty minutes from each other. We had been close friends in college, and though our lives are drastically different from the days of sleeping on old couches and cramming all night for finals, we picked up right where we left off. Tom has been married for eight years, and he has two boys, one five and the other two. Outside an extra pound or two around the waist and a hairline showing the very first signs of retreat, Tom looked as if he had barely aged a day. For a guy I once had to retrieve from an unsettled elderly neighbor’s couch at 5 a.m. because he couldn’t find his house, marriage and fatherhood seemed to suit him well.
After a few minutes of catching up, we made our way to the inevitable question “so, what do you do?” Tom started with a finance company right out of college, and has worked his way up to a position where he can comfortably provide for his family. His wife works part time as an entrepreneur, allowing her to spend more time with their children. By all accounts, Tom is living the American dream. Tom has put together what he labeled as “a modest investment portfolio,” having invested in mutual funds, a business startup, and two recently purchased residential rental properties.
When the conversation shifted to me, I told Tom that I work with families and business owners to create comprehensive estate plans to protect their assets and plan for their future. At that point, Tom pursed his lips and averted his gaze. Having seen this look before, I knew what was coming. Before I could say anything else, he said, in an almost ashamed tone, “my wife and I don’t have a will yet.” He then reluctantly glanced back up, as if he expected me to admonish him. This scenario plays out with startling frequency.
The moment I tell someone what I do for work, they either have questions about the current laws and how their plan will be affected, or they take on the persona of a child about to be scolded. More than once, simply telling someone what I do has impacted the social interaction in surprising ways. Why is that? Having taken three psychology classes in undergrad, I can say with (almost zero) professional certainty, that people know they need an estate plan, they’ve been procrastinating about it, and they’re embarrassed. I told Tom, as I often say in these situations, don’t be embarrassed, you’re not alone. 50% of adults in the United States do not have even a basic will. 50%. Let that sink in. Based on recent population estimates from the United States Census Bureau, that is roughly 122.5 million adults over the age of 18 that do not have a plan to deal with issues surrounding their own incapacity or death.
So, we know many people believe they should have an estate plan, yet 50% have not yet followed through on the plan. Why? To answer that, I’ll rely on my experience as an estate planning counselor (and those three psych classes.) For many it comes down to two words: fear & uncertainty. An amusing anecdote from Jerry Seinfeld is frequently quoted, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Death is number two. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Fortunately, most people are rarely forced to speak in front of a crowd. However, when it comes to fear #2, Father Time is waiting on us all. This can be a sobering and unsettling thought, and perhaps depressing if dwelled upon. And, what’s the first thing you expect your estate planning attorney to ask? “Who do you want us to give your stuff to when you’re gone?” Now, not only are your forced to contemplate your own mortality, you have to decide who gets to ride your jet ski into the sunset while you're eternally left behind. See? Even with Seinfeld tucked inside, that was a depressing paragraph.
Here’s a bright spot, estate plans can be every bit as important when you’re alive as when you’re…you know, that thing we just talked about. Comprehensive estate plans often include powers of attorney, living wills, and health care directives. And, it’s not all “pull the plug!” These documents designate someone you love and trust, rather than a perfect stranger, to make personal, financial, as well as health care decisions on your behalf and according to your wishes. These instruments can be vitally important whether you’re traveling the world or anesthetized on the operating table.
Another phrase I hear from time to time is “why do I need a will if I don’t own anything?” That’s a fair question, and maybe you don’t need a will. However, it’s interesting how often “I don’t own anything” equates to: equity in a home, an automobile, household pets, jewelry, clothing, and/or retirement accounts. Everyone “owns” something (See: What Is a Will and What Does It Do?)
As for Tom, he knew he needed a will. His next question was, how do you know what type of estate plan to sell someone? I told him the same thing I tell everyone I counsel, I will never sell you a plan. Every client is unique, and I don’t mean that from a strictly financial perspective. Client’s values and beliefs are every bit as important to their estate planning objectives as their money is. That’s why we don’t market one-size-fits-all plans. There are plenty of places just a few clicks from here that will sell you a plan, and nothing else. Every plan I create is custom-tailored to achieve the goals and objectives of each client. Don’t worry, the process isn’t nearly as painful as you’re envisioning. First, we’ll have a detailed conversation about life, issues personally important to you and your family, and what your long-term objectives are. Next, we’ll discuss some tools that can help you accomplish those objectives. And, when we’re both satisfied that your plan will function as you intended, we get it signed and get you back to living your life. As an added bonus, we offer members of our Estate Maintenance Program: 1) annual strategy sessions with me, 2) annual updates to your entire estate plan (as needed), 3) 24/7 access to your entire estate plan on any device through our secure client portal, and 4) access to a yearly comprehensive financial checkup with a financial advisor, accountant, insurance specialist, and mortgage broker.
Do you have a will? I would love to hear about what brought you to that decision. Any other questions, ideas, suggestions, want to know what flavor of ice cream I prefer (mint chocolate chip all day), please leave me some feedback! If you know anyone that could benefit from some advice, feel free to share this with them as well.
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