Angela and her older brother with her dad when he graduated from pharmacy school
My dad passed away almost eight years ago. Months before he got sick we were talking about trusts and estate planning because my husband and I were updating our own estate documents. We had welcomed into the world our third daughter, and we wanted her to be named in the document even though it was not legally required. The language in the documents would suffice and she would be treated the same as the other two girls.
It’s not like we had a complicated or large estate. We were just following the checklist from our financial adviser, and it was time to evaluate our estate plan documents. I asked my dad what he thought. “Should we go ahead and update the trust now? Or wait until we have a legal reason to update it?”
Plans Change Over Time
My dad wasn’t one for spending money if you didn’t need to, so I was surprised when he said to go ahead and do it. Maybe it was because the topic was top of mind for him because he was working on updating his own estate plan. Apparently, the trust he and mom set up when we were kids had expired, so he was in the process of working with an attorney to get a new trust in place.
His suggestion for me was to create a system for tracking the changes that matter to me – as they arise. He said to go ahead and make changes that are important. “It’s not like you enjoy working through these kinds of what-if scenarios anticipating an untimely death. Yet you will want it clear when the time comes.” Or something along those lines. I can remember the conversation so clearly because I valued his advice.
“It’s not like you enjoy working through these kinds of what-if scenarios anticipating an untimely death. Yet you will want it clear when the time comes.”
Life is Complicated. Death Shouldn’t Be.
Most families have potential complications for an estate plan. Maybe it’s a blended family. Or a pending divorce. Or perhaps there’s a family member with special needs where there are state or federal laws to consider if you want to maximize the resources available to each child.
What my dad told me was to be sure to outline my concerns. Talk to other people about how they handled it. I can hear him in my head right now. “Don’t be afraid to pay for advice, either. If someone is an expert, it’s because they have spent enough time seeing different outcomes from various decisions. That’s valuable information. Learn things the easy way when you can.”
He told me about when his parents passed away. About how he wished it would have been more clear how they wanted their assets distributed, and how it might have saved hurt feelings. I thought a lot about what he said.
My Dad May Have Wanted to Materially Change His Plan
He started to tell me about the new trust he was having drawn up, saying the new trust would solve a lot of issues he was concerned about. Aside from being out of date, the new trust would resolve the tricky issues surrounding siblings with varying needs. My brother and sister were much younger than me and my older brother, so he wanted to provide different things for us “at the right time.”
Problem is, we never finished that part of the conversation. Most likely he got called away to fix something. He was simultaneously working on several projects around the house at any given time. I inherited that gift.
Fixing The Important Stuff
My dad was a pharmacist and he owned a pharmacy in our small town in Western Kansas. As a kid growing up and working in the pharmacy, I remember thinking how smart he was. He knew what symptoms indicated a virus or a bacterial infection. He could tell you about drug-drug interactions so you would know if you couldn’t take the new prescription with the old one. I hoped I would pick up a fraction of what he knew.
In his pharmacy, he had several mortars and pestles on the shelf. He used them to compound special orders for the doctors in town, and sometimes for the vet. The process was interesting. Powders, creams, jells. Capsules being filled through a tiny funnel with precision. Labels carefully typed out on the manual typewriter. Affixed to each small blue bottle with care. Finished off with a large piece of clear tape to make sure the label wasn’t going anywhere. Then he would place it in the long white Paul’s Pharmacy bag, fold it over, attach the paperwork, and staple it shut.
I must have watched him do that process a hundred times. He had me working at his pharmacy starting in 3rd grade. I learned a lot by watching, just being around him.
In addition to knowing about pharmaceuticals, my dad had a knack for anything mechanical. He could take it apart and put it back together after cleaning all the tiny parts. Whatever it was would whir and hum like new. He fixed jewelry. Repaired clocks. Lawn mowers. Jeeps.
On that particular day, one of the kids probably found an old watch in his collection and needed him to replace the battery so it would work again. He would gladly take a look at anything broken to see if he could fix it (or re-purpose it) before throwing it out. He left us buildings full of stuff with potential. I’m not kidding. My dad was instrumental in the re-use movement.
Estate Plans Prepare For The Unexpected
I suppose the follow-up estate planning conversation with my dad didn’t happen because I didn’t know how to bring it up again.
I felt awkward. There was probably a little concern about him hearing me “wanting to know” and confusing it with “what’s in it for me”, or worse, that I was bringing up the difficult subject of death at the wrong time.
Ten years ago my older brother was killed in a car accident. It was difficult for all of us, but my parents took it especially hard. I kept hoping they would get through the pain enough to talk about it. Talk about the good times. Talk about how his legacy lives on in each of us who knew him. I’m finally there with my mom and my siblings, but I don’t think dad ever got there.
The mere mention of the subject was prickly and left all of us feeling flat, so we generally avoided it.
As these things go, you know what comes next. I wish I would have asked my dad more about what he wanted when I had the chance.
Being Prepared Means Getting Ready
I like being prepared. I also like helping my kids prepare. Being ready for adulting. Doing well by others. Asking for what you need. Being honest. Finding and keeping good friends. Doing what you love. Saying what you mean. Saving essays in case they can be recycled for one of the prompts on next year’s college entrance exams.
My parent’s death wasn’t on my list of things to get prepared for at that moment. I don’t want the same for my kids. Or yours. It’s not an easy topic, but when you lose someone suddenly, it can be even harder.
See, for us, his new trust didn’t get in place before my dad got sick. He ended up contracting an infection that ultimately took his life. We thought there was going to be enough time to finish it up later.
Everything You Hear About Probate Is Probably True
It was long. And expensive. Avoid it if you can.
Mom spent nearly two years in probate because we didn’t have an updated trust document, and we couldn’t find the fully executed copy of their will until two years later. Yes, our attorney tried. He said we should go ahead and have him sign the draft and get it notarized when he went into the hospital that first day. But I couldn’t do it. He was in the ER, and it just didn’t seem right. Besides, he was going to get well and come home.
Days turned to weeks. You know how it goes from there.
We had to make decisions. Big decisions. I was now the oldest, so part of the burden fell to me as to gather information and represent the interests of the children and grandchildren. My mom needed to rely on me when she had tough decisions to make, and I didn’t have the benefit of knowing what dad would have wanted.
I wasn’t prepared.
My Gift to You
My Valentine’s wish for you is simple: have a conversation with your parents and the people you love. Help everyone understand your plans. Understand theirs, too. Ask lots of questions. Yes, the plan may change over time, but at least you’ll be more prepared.
My gift for you is a short estate-planning conversation guide to help start the conversation with your parents. Pay it forward and share with others, too. I will help if I can. Send me an email or add a comment below. I’d love to hear how it goes or your suggestions on how to prepare for it.
PS. I’m not an attorney or a Certified Financial Planner, CFP®, or an investment advisor. I’m a mom and a wife. A daughter and a sister. Wanting things easier for you than it was for me. That’s all.
For the short estate-planning conversation guide, click here.