THE ASSUMPTIONS WE MAKE
During the transition of married life to divorced life, I was in a doctor’s office, filling out the typical paperwork. The question of ‘in case of emergency who should we call?’ stumped me as I thought, “Now what? Who should they call?” It’s strange how a usually straightforward question transforms into more profound thoughts about who and what is important to you. In full disclosure, following this, I learned that my biological father is not the father with whom I grew up, so add the thought of, “for 60 years I have been lying on my medical forms.” Who knew a simple piece of paper could generate the reality of the assumptions we make in our lives?
Fast forward to last year and a conversation I was having with a long-term care consultant. I realized that I needed to learn my insurance options now – before I got even older and body parts would start failing even more than they already do! Had I appropriately financially planned for my circumstances?
One of his very first comments was, “Since you are single with no children, you can spend all your money on taking care of yourself.”
WHOA. Altogether not my money mindset nor my financial plan, in fact, the opposite of what I want my legacy to be. People make assumptions when there are no apparent heirs, one of which is presuming that you will want to consume your wealth during your lifetime.
YOUR LEGACY IS YOUR MISSION STATEMENT
Your legacy is a statement of who you are, how you want to be described, your perspective, values, and principles, AND your consideration of others after you are gone. When you don’t have obvious heirs, you get to ideate about how your relationship with money can apply to the various people and organizations that have played a role in your life events and transitions. You have the opportunity to envision the manifestation of your goals and dreams and of those important to you, and how you can contribute to making those visions come true.
My estate plan is chock full of people and nonprofits I care deeply about, and I want to be able my gratitude to include a financial component. The idea that I wouldn’t be able to do that is the antithesis of what money means to me and my mission.
I have a personal mission statement, and I always encourage my clients to have one as well. I call it my NorthStar and the foundational core of my financial decision-making process.
Mine is “I want my money to represent who I want to be as a human being, with my knowledge and emotions aligned to maintain my security, flexibility, freedom, and generosity.”
GIVE A GIFT OR CHANGE SOMEONE’S LIFE
When working with clients, one of the many questions I ask is: Do you want to give a gift or change someone’s life? Many people automatically think of giving a gift and stop there. If you have the financial means to change someone’s life, would that be something you want to do?
Here’s an example of a client who initially gave a gift but then pivoted to changing someone’s life:
A client’s ailing husband had an excellent caregiver for many years. From what I learned, the patient was not an easy man to be with, and my client was immensely grateful for the caregiver’s patience, acceptance, expertise, and continued care. When her husband died, my client could not say “thank you” enough to the caretaker. She left a nice sum of money for the caretaker in the will. My client also realized that she, too, would need a caretaker. The caretaker stayed on to take care of her.
As my client and I reviewed her values and priorities related to her legacy and her estate plan, the caretaker’s name came up in our conversation. My client wanted to give a gift to the caretaker. We discussed that when my client died, the caretaker would be that much older, and working full-time would be a hardship for her. As we looked at my client’s desired legacy, it became more apparent that my client wanted to give this woman freedom from having to work to support herself. Rather than a gift, she wanted to change her life and allow her to retire. With this decision, my client’s estate lawyer proposed a solution that would accomplish her objectives.
TALKING ABOUT DEATH CHANGES HOW YOU LIVE
One of my favorite precepts is how talking about death changes how you live. Every ‘living your legacy’ client walks away wanting to incorporate at least some of what we discover during our time together. Our work together opens the door to learning more about what is important to you, at your core. It is not surprising, then, when it becomes crucial to use that information now.
An example of putting that phrase into action was when an asset manager hired me to consult her client on bequest concerns.
Her client, a single woman with no heirs, was eager to determine nonprofits organizations, in five specific fields of interest, as the beneficiaries of her trust. The project’s research phase was extensive, and as I reported back to the client, I could see her interest grow. In the end, there was enough information for her to decide which nonprofits to include in her estate plan.
We created a framework document for her trustees to use for vetting the particular organizations at the time of her death. Included in the paperwork was an explanation of her intentions, values, and beliefs. If the named organizations failed her tests, her trustees would have her guidance to fulfill her wishes with other nonprofits. I also developed a list of questions for her trustees based on the information gathered during the discovery process as a benchmark for them to follow.
With her passion ignited, the client and I discussed that she could start to change how she was living. I encouraged her to spend time getting to know the organizations and the people involved – staff, board, and volunteers – as they are like-minded. She started donating to these nonprofits in the present time, building relationships with the executive directors and staff, volunteering, and giving her life more purpose and joy.
IN CONSIDERATION AS A SINGLE WOMAN
“About two-thirds of people living alone at home over age 85 are women,” according to a 2017 study from the Society of Actuaries.
Not surprising, as all the actuarial tables show, women continue to live longer than men. Given the many statistics that show concerns of women’s financial wellness, the financial dependency women have on others, and women’s overall relationship with money, planning your legacy as a single woman has its share of extra steps in preparing for beneficiaries. It can get complicated as single women tend to be more concerned about their financial picture during their lifetime. I have spoken and written often of Bag Lady Syndrome, and that topic resonates strongly with women (and men, just not as often).
OTHER CHANGES I NEEDED TO MAKE, AND NOW MY CLIENTS DO THIS AS WELL
Immediately following my medical form changes, I acknowledged that I needed to change my estate’s trustees as my ex-husband clearly didn’t belong on that form either. I know all too well the burden of being an estate executor, having assisted in the process several times. I chose two best friends and wrote a lengthy explanation of my thought process, my philosophy, including my mission statement, gifting, and values.
I asked both of my friends to read my wishes now to ensure I was as clear as I intended to be. Once the editing process was complete, I added the following, “I know that there will be many more pieces of my estate puzzle than I can’t anticipate at the moment. I asked you both to do this as I completely trust your judgment. At any point, if you find yourself asking, ‘What would Emily do?’ the answer is ‘She would ask you to use your judgment.'” I did include, “Besides, I’ll be dead, so you won’t have to worry about my reaction!” There is nothing like a little humor to lighten the atmosphere.
HOW TO CREATE A ROAD MAP FOR YOUR LOVED ONES
In my practice, I help clients in creating a legacy road map. I use Go Wish Cards to help people find the words that help them identify what is important to them and how to talk about it. Additionally, I take them through a visioning exercise to help them identify their values, which allows them to center their legacy plans in keeping with how they live. Lastly, I encourage all of my clients to write letters to the beneficiaries, both the individuals and organizations, to add the personal reasons behind the gift. It is one thing to ONLY be told you are receiving money. It is something completely different to learn how meaningful you are, AND you are receiving a gift.
The following is a list of questions to help you start ideating about your life and legacy:
What are Your Biggest Fears of Being Alone?
What are your biggest fears at the end? What keeps you up at night by being alone, and how do we solve that?
Who and What Has Impacted Your Life?
How do you want to honor that or them? Use people who will appreciate the importance of what you are asking of them after you are gone.
What Would you Like to See Changed in The World?
Identify and explore your values. Is there something that you prioritize above all else, where you’d like to make an impact?
What Does My Generosity Include?
Is there a nonprofit that you’d like to support, and/or someone directly?
Why Is This Important to Me
Share why you want what you want. It doesn’t take a magic formula to plan your legacy. It’s a personal process. People won’t know your reasons behind your choices unless you communicate them.
P.S. As I was writing this blog, a former client sent me the following text: “Thank you for helping me understand a different way to prepare for what my children will go through after my death…so that my children will feel empowered, loved, trusted, and deeply cherished.
In case you are wondering, my siblings and I were blindsided by my father’s will today. It’s not a huge deal to us financially, but it’s what it signifies vis-à-vis all of the things I listed in the text above. The grief alone was bad enough. But to have this heaped on top today was almost unbearable. Thanks. I’ll call soon.”
My heart aches for my client. This is not how it has to be. Ever.