We have all watched the markets during COVID and seen how some businesses have thrived during the pandemic and others have struggled. In my industry, I have observed CPAs crazed with demands as they keep up with tax updates and ever-changing extensions. However, the real boon has been to estate planning attorneys, who are more in demand than they have ever been during my career tenure.
To put a fine point on it, COVID has brought death to the forefront of conversations. It has been headline news every day for over a year now. For financial planners like me, discussions about illness, death and dying are part of any good comprehensive financial plan, but many people prefer to avoid the subject whenever possible. Quite simply, COVID has caused us to confront our mortality on a grand scale.
And since people have been staying home for the better part of the year, many finally have had the time to address what is involved in completing or updating estate-planning documents. Others have been cleaning out long-neglected spaces and realizing that people named in their documents are no longer around or no longer part of their lives. All of this has contributed to estate planning attorneys being busier than ever.
No More Procrastinating
I realized this phenomenon was happening when a relative of mine called to let me know they had finally updated all their estate planning documents last March. I had been asking (nagging!) them to please meet with an attorney to get new documents for years now. The relief when they let me know it had been done was palpable.
They had served as an executor for another relative who had passed, and this process was illuminating to them. When COVID began and friends started getting sick and hospitalized, they realized that now was the time to act, to make sure new wishes were recorded, and to help their relatives handle their affairs as easily as possible.
They said, “When you go through that yourself, it makes you realize the necessity of having all your documents in order.” That same relative suffered a health decline in the last few months and the fact that the documents were current has made such a difference amid all the other decisions we have had to make.
In a sad irony, a talented estate planning attorney I worked with for decades was the first person I knew who died of COVID. He had such a soft way about him and was adept at explaining difficult concepts in a way clients could understand. He broached hard topics with such sensitivity and gave me a great model for starting these difficult conversations that are so critical to have.
Once we were all vaccinated, I visited my own parents for the first time in many months and had some difficult conversations about their wishes as they age. We have had many such conversations over the years, but I wanted to get the “COVID update” to know if anything had changed. The relief I feel, knowing we have a plan in place, is something I want for my clients.
Over the years I have developed a set of worksheets to assist with these conversations, since I believe having written documentation is so important.
The conversations themselves are critical but when a tragedy has occurred, it is so important to have these wishes in writing. I learned this early on with one of my first clients, a nurse with a terminal illness.
She had a very detailed estate planning attorney who had sent over worksheets asking about what she wanted, should she become incapacitated. This conversation is never an easy one, but she had a medical background, so this had been part of her job and she was very candid. Likewise, I come from a medical family and for me, having these conversations is so critical.
My client and I discussed her end-of-life wishes in great depth, from hydration to medication. She explained to me why she could not name her very sweet husband as her medical power of attorney: He would never be able to carry out her wishes when it was time. Instead, she named a nursing friend for this task, with her husband’s knowledge and understanding.
When the time came, it was just as she had predicted, and I was so thankful we had spent the time discussing and documenting her requests. Her only son thanked me with tears in his eyes for planning all this, and said it really helped them through a very tough time. I have had so many clients over the years thank me for having these difficult conversations and also have seen the consequences when they are not discussed and written down.
The Power of the Written Word
Last week I had a meeting with a client couple with three children, one of whom they have been helping financially more than the others, due to a tough divorce. This is very common theme these days. In our meeting I asked about how they are dividing the assets and if anything had changed due to this development. They responded that “the kids all know what is going on and what we want,” but that they hadn’t yet made it to the attorney to update their documents to reflect these considerations.
Another thing I have observed over the 22 years I have been doing this: When you have a loved one pass away, grief makes people react in so many ways, some bad and some good. Add money into the picture and that heightens the stakes.
So I shared with this client couple the story of a good friend who lived with her two sisters and the grandmother who had raised them after their mom’s early death. When the grandmother passed away, she left them her very expensive house and all the contents. All three sisters coveted a small glass dish, and each insisted their grandmother had told them they were receiving it. The grandmother had dementia at the end, so it is entirely possible that she did verbally gift it to each of them — but two of the sisters still do not speak to this day due to that fight.
Had the grandmother written down her wishes, there would be nothing to dispute. Over and over, I have seen the power of the written document, and the comfort families feel in being able to carry out a client’s last wishes.
“Over and over, I have seen the power of the written document, and the comfort families feel in being able to carry out a client’s last wishes.”
One of the most popular documents I use with my clients is my Funeral Planning worksheet. While most people do not enjoy talking about death, most have strong opinions about how they would like to be celebrated and remembered. I also have documents for clients to summarize the key people for their estate plan, so they can have made those important decisions before they meet with the estate-planning attorney.
I was a high school English teacher in my previous life, so my worksheets are basic but accomplish an important job: To get past that first hurdle and acknowledge our mortality. It is not “If I die” but “when.” I have observed many times over that being prepared for this inevitability is the best gift you can give to those you love.
Lauren Gadkowski Lindsay, is a fee-only CFP licensee at Beacon Financial Planning in Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.