Within the last few months I have received more questions about estate plans than the sum of my entire life prior. My default response is “I don’t know.” Perhaps I ought to leave it there? (my usual response.) Instead, I started reading and began writing… mostly trying to form some coherent thoughts.
Disclosure: I still don’t know what I’m doing. However, I would like to share some thoughts. This is not advice.
For me, the phrase “estate planning” conjures up images of stuffy attorneys and financial advisors; perhaps a few non-profit folks and maybe an endowment chair. What I think it ought to bring to mind is death. Yes, cold hard termination of your own life –an incomplete sentence. Thief in the night.
I’ve been taught to “number my days.” (which I have interpreted to mean, use a life insurance actuarial table to estimate how long I’ll live. Count out what is left. Ponder that. Use them wisely.)
As a grown up farm-boy, an “estate” sounds awfully fancy to me… I picture Greek fountains and Italian Cypress trees… not acres of corn fields and forests; although my grandfather and great grandfather owned those, and passed those down through the generations. The word “plan” on the other hand is obtainable. This is just a written guideline for your wishes. So, after recalibrating “estate plan” into something relatable, we can proceed.
I believe the purpose of an estate plan is to allocate your wealth (your abundance, which is everything you own after you die,) in such a manner so as to accomplish something that takes longer than your life to complete. I believe this “mission” can begin before you pass, and can persist thereafter. Timing and velocity is a matter of personal conviction and vision. Resources probably fell under your supervision during your life because you were decent at capital allocation… or you were simply lucky. I know, I’m a combination of these two elements… sometimes I wonder how much of which is the true source. I’ve absolutely been lucky (defined as nothing I did equated to me deserving the magnitude of what I received.)
At this point there is a reasonable argument to be made that “luck” or predestination or energy dispersion of some other grand schema (God) is at work and our direction of physical matter posthumous is a “chasing after the wind.” Some might condense this line of thinking to midwestern, “Chuck it. I’ll be dead.” Personally, this does not square with my values –which I believe will exist after I am gone. So I will truncate this proposed approach, and seal it with the punchline, that anyone that believes the world will exist after they die ought to think a bit more deeply about what happens to their stuff after they are dead. Consider it. Make a plan. Write it down. Share it.
More importantly, I think the amount of stuff effects people’s thinking. Stuff has effected my thinking. As we have obtained more stuff my mind has become more effected. It is a somewhat inescapable reality of being alive, right? Even a monk who abstains from private property still possesses his food, right? He overtakes it, and uses it. He cannot be without it and still be. So, to be alive is to have dominion over stuff (at least in part.) We, the living, thus direct things… into our mouths or around our bodies as shelter, or piled up for others to be envious of, or to be used to help other people. We certainly use our things to help our children and our friends. How about our neighbors? Helping others? That sounds nice, right?
So, just how much is “enough”? What constitutes abundance? Is it defined by the government? By democratic vote? Or by energy? Or utility? I think it is balanced by physical need (energy) and discipline to direct it toward your vision. There are physical needs we have to remain alive. Everyone deserves access to meet their physical needs. Humans have value that is greater than plants and animals. I believe human life is more valuable than a piece of lettuce, or a dog, even a very cute and loyal dog. We also have an intrinsic right, as humans, to protect our own lives. What constitutes enough protection? This varies by personality and place of value. What is life? Is it just breathing? What of your values? Your purpose?
Within estate planning, we easily honor our children by giving them an inheritance, underserved in most cases. They get what was left over because we care for them. Fortunately, our country honors this by default, in most cases where a positive net worth exists upon the death of a person. And usually, our children are of higher value than other people near us at the time of our deaths. We sacrifice for our children from the time of their birth, or ideally, before. We think of them. Prepare for them. Adjust to their surprise needs. This relationship is good and natural and tends to persist throughout our lives. But what of our creator? How do we care for our elders? What of our maker? Generations prior? How do we honor those who have sacrificed for us? How does this fit in with our plan? Our domain? Are they cast aside? Think.
It seems to me like meeting the needs of our children –while they are children– is a good first step. It should not be the last. Perhaps we think about our grandchildren, or even our great grandchildren, or great, great, great, etc (I don’t yet have any grandchildren but some of my classmates are starting to become grandparents… whoa. I’m getting old!) Now, I also think we can consider our friends. Who are those who sacrifice for us in our times of need? Are they more likely to do good than our great, great, great grandchildren? What is the probability of that based on what you do or did in this life? What makes you so sure? Can we help them achieve something we believe in? Do they –those we “know”– have enough to produce well? Honor your values? Can we see their plans worked out more quickly? Who among us promotes life? How can we get onboard with that?
What is the thing that will take longer than my life to obtain and who will go furthest with it? What do I want perpetuated?