By Patricia M. Angus – Originally published in WealthManagement.com April 2020
By now, unless you work in health care or an “essential business,” you’ve likely settled into “self-isolation” mode. Working at home, your family is now nearby—physically and/or on the other side of a video screen. You’re likely in close touch with the people who are most important to you—not just family but also old friends, past colleagues and neighbors in your local community. Oddly, you may be noticing that mandated physical distance comes with an increased sense of emotional connection as we all face this crisis together. Based on 25 years advising clients on wealth and estate planning, I see an opportunity here. The pandemic has created the perfect moment to speak with your loved ones about things that are too often left unsaid. Here are some thoughts on why, what and how to have these discussions.
Note that my columns are generally written for advisors to help their clients. Given the nature of the current pandemic, this installment is intended to help advisors in their own lives and to be shared directly with clients.
Why: There’s No Time Like the Present
Even if you’re far from the epicenter of COVID-19, you’ve undoubtedly had some thoughts about your own mortality, and that of others, as the pandemic has unfolded. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like without your parent, child or best friend. You’ve probably also had moments of wondering whether this could be “it” for you. You may be re-envisioning your future with reduced income and savings. Will you be able to send your children to college next year? When will you be able to retire? What if you end up in the hospital on a ventilator, or worse? These are all scenarios that now seem a lot more “real” than you might have imagined a few months ago.
Estate planners know that these questions are so daunting that most people avoid addressing them altogether. It’s rarely taxes and technical issues that delay financial and estate planning. Very often, a nearly complete will can sit on a lawyer’s desk for six months while a client “thinks about” one last issue. Yes, we humans like to avoid these thoughts in the best of times. But that was then, and this is now. Our newfound sense of profound fragility, connection and purpose ought to motivate even the best avoiders among us. There’s no time like the present to contemplate, formulate and have important discussions with our loved ones.
How: Start With Yourself and Lead With Questions
How to begin? As in all great endeavors, you must start with yourself. No one else can tell you how you should think about your dreams, goals and wishes for your life—what you still hope for and what you’d like most to leave behind. So, you can—and must—do the work. If you’re able to take a walk, then leave the headphones home and ask yourself—What’s most important to you? Finance, income, work aside—what really matters to you? Why? How about your relationships? Are there words you’ve left unsaid? Rifts you wish had been healed? Don’t focus on regrets but, rather, think about the positives. Have you told your loved ones what they mean to you—in detail? And, on a practical level, have you put things in order? Do you have a power of attorney? Health care proxy? Living will? Will? Have you created a trust for those who depend on you? You get to choose the questions and—as hard as it might be—need to suspend judgment as you ask and answer them for yourself. This isn’t the time to criticize yourself for things you’ve done or wish you hadn’t done. Actually, that was never helpful, and it certainly isn’t now.
What: Create the Environment and Have the Conversation
Once you’ve had a chance to ask yourself these questions, write down your thoughts. In your computer, on a sheet of paper or with a crayon. Whatever works for you is OK here. Then think about next steps. As a practical matter, if you don’t have your legal documents in order, find a lawyer and make the call. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you’ll be helping your family if you put your affairs in order regardless of how this all turns out.
And, equally important, create an environment for conversations with loved ones so you can all discuss the thoughts and feelings that have arisen. Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out. In fact, it will likely be better received if you create an open dialogue. Suggest to your spouse that you both think about this and set a time to discuss. Schedule an appointment with your children and ask them to think about their hopes and dreams before the call. Resist the temptation to make it a “clinical” discussion of your wishes that you impart on others. Open the door to your heart and ask others to do the same. What are their fears right now? How can you help each other? What does your community need from you? Have you given enough? Can you give more together? Initiate conversations with your closest friends that go beyond the day-to-day-ness of our lives and invite them to the next level. Out of all this, if you seek true connection you may find that you can head out of these dark days with a brighter sense of connection, love and hope. All things that are helpful at any time.