Say you’re going away for a weekend with your spouse, and your college kid will be in charge of his siblings. Wouldn’t you leave a long list of things to do? Feed the kids, the dogs, lock the house at night, throw in a load of laundry, and drop your brother at religious education? Say you’re the same couple and you and your husband learn that both of you have only six months to live. I would imagine your list would be a bit longer. You’d need to talk to your kids about your will, estate, how to take care of the house, how to collect and manage the life insurance, you get it. Why not just do it now, so in the event you get killed in a car accident on your weekend away, your kids are as informed and prepared as possible?
Except for getting a will decades ago, I didn’t think much about estate planning until my brother Brian began producing the Strange Inheritance show for Fox Business News. I watched an episode about an Illinois farmer and hoarder, who left his million dollar farm to two 70s TV actors he had never met. His conscientious lawyer waded through the garbage in his house to find the will. I spoke with Brian afterwards.
“How’d you like the show?”
“I loved it but it was very upsetting! There was so much left to chance! What if the lawyer didn’t find the will? What if there was family who broke in and destroyed the will? Where are the protections?”
“You’ll be glad to know we now have a show Strange Inheritance: Unpacked, which discusses all of these questions.”
I have a friend whose mother had a life-threatening stroke a couple of years ago. When she arrived at the hospital, she discovered that not only was her mom close to death but her dad was suffering from what appeared to be dementia. Although she knew that her mom had a living will, she didn’t know anything else about her parents’ estate, except the location of the documents.
She had to wrangle a Power of Attorney out of her dad so that she could make the end of life decisions for her mom. After her mother’s funeral she had to make plans to have her dad move closer. He died a couple years later. It has taken her five years to unwind her parents’ estates. Settling them took so much physical, mental, and emotional energy, I’m not sure she had any left to properly mourn her parents’ passing.
My parents did not say much about their estate either but when my dad died nineteen years ago, thankfully, my brother Paul began helping my mom manage her finances. When he saw her begin to slip, he persuaded her to sign a Power of Attorney. He assured her that he would only use it when she was ready to hand over control. When she could no longer manage her beach house, he convinced her to it to give to us kids instead of selling it. I believe that because it wasn’t dumped in our laps until after her death, the five of us had the time to figure out how to manage it.
Herein the problem lies. How do you get your parents to talk about these things? Like the sex talks you give your kids, you just muscle through. There is no easy way. It is sad that end of life and estate discussions are shrouded in mystery. Time and money could be saved if people were more open with their children about estate planning.
After my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she had to move out of her home in Florida to live with my sister. My brother asked me to go down, clear out her house, and get it ready to sell. I donated most of her stuff and sent each family a box of keepsakes. We divided up her artwork using a lottery system.
This all sounds easy and businesslike but it’s not. It is very emotional. It took me two years to get around to completing the task I was assigned of dividing up my mom’s jewelry. Last Thanksgiving, when we were all together, I gave each female in the family an identical box holding various pieces of my mom’s jewelry that I thought each person would like. It was a nice event and everyone was excited to get a meaningful, yet unexpected, gift before Christmas. Most importantly, my mom was present for the distribution.
My brother’s goal was to dismantle my mother’s estate so that there is only money left for her care. When she does eventually die, he will be able to “unwind it” in five minutes. I’ve recently taken to watching more episodes of Strange Inheritance, one about a flight attendant who amassed a very valuable collection of beads, another about a family who inherited a not so valuable roadside attraction situated on very valuable land, and one about a fantasy artist whose children were fighting over his collection of paintings. Not only do I enjoy each show, they get me thinking about how I should be talking to my children.
Most of us don’t want to talk about death with our kids, so we don’t. Many people don’t want to give up control of their finances or they’re afraid that they’ll ruin their kids’ work ethics if they tell them they are coming into some money. But is receiving an unexpected windfall whether it is money or a dinosaur roadside attraction, a good thing?
A financial planner told me that the majority of people who receive a financial windfall usually spend it within a year and a half, regardless of the size. There are financial advisers who specialize in counseling children who receive huge financial inheritances so they don’t ruin their lives. Experts say that if you know your child is going to get an inheritance, a trust fund, or say access to a 529 account, regardless of the size, you should tell them at a young age, to prepare them for it. You tell them why they will be receiving something and the background of their benefactor, if for example, it’s a grandparent.
I’ve used this tactic with my kids. Since they were born, we’ve spent part of the summer at my family’s beach house, at first with my parents, and then with my siblings and their families. At times my kids complained and said they were bored or it was too hot at the beach. I couldn’t understand why they were so unappreciative. A couple of years ago, my husband and I sat them down and explained that we could never afford to buy a house like this, that it was because of their grandfather’s hard work and success, and their grandmother’s generosity that we had the house. We told them that we are able to continue to hold onto the house because my siblings and I work hard to get along and keep it going. Once my mother dies, the house will be the only physical glue holding our family together.
It became clear to them that Joe’s Place, as we call it, is a gift that a lot of people have worked hard to keep in the family. I saw a change in their attitude toward the house immediately. So when you’re reading to your kids, teaching them to ride a bike, giving them sex talks, and showing them how to manage money, why not tell them what is going to happen when you die?