Chapter OneCONFESSIONS OF PROCRASTINATION
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I need to make a confession. Well, maybe two.
Over the years, I had returned to my hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, for reunions and holiday visits to my parents. Like a Norman Rockwell print come to life, Lafayette has a town square at the heart of its business district, a railroad at the heart of its midsection, and a local high school basketball team at the heart of its entertainment.
I had bored my children on previous visits talking about my old stomping grounds. They heard the usual reflective stories, with very little exaggeration, about how I dominated the sports scene at school, how I walked miles to school uphill both ways, and how I often shoveled three feet of snow off the widows' sidewalks on the way for no pay.
But in 1991, I returned to Lafayette for the funeral of my mother. Heart disease ended her life journey from an immigrant's daughter and a faithful spouse of fifty years to a devoted mother of three boys. My mind was flooded with many fond memories of my mom and my childhood. The first important woman in my life was gone.
My two younger brothers and I had never experienced death in our immediate family. Dad was facing the loss of the woman with whom he'd spent a lifetime. He'd gone through so much with her-the ups and downs of life in small town America. The sense of loss weighed mightily. We all knew that a big part of our lives was gone.
But we were men. We could handle this. It's life, part of God's plan. She's in a better place. It would be okay. Time would heal the hurt. You know, I realized clichis are clichis for good reason-though they ring true, they ring hollow. They had no healing power for my heartache or sadness, no relief for my loss.
We four men stood at the funeral, shoulder to shoulder. Emotions suppressed and faces stoic. Sweaty hands folded and clasped behind us. We hardly spoke. It was a beautiful funeral service with tender words sincerely expressed by loved ones and well-wishers. Now it was over.
As we were driving home my wife, Judy, said, "I was wondering how you men would handle this. It fascinated me to see how you four men were so nonemotional and unsentimental." It was an understandable observation. Dad, my brothers David and Wendel, and I were not expressive types. Having emotions is one thing, but expressing them is another. What's a grown, professional man supposed to do at his mother's funeral? Cry? Be a tower of strength? Look solemn and controlled? This was a new experience for all of us.
I know I was sad though. I also know that I never said all the things I would have liked to say while Mom was alive. The day Mom died at the hospital, I happened to be alone in their house before the rest of the family returned. As I was quietly walking through the house, I saw a yellow note on the kitchen table in her handwriting: "Call Ron." A phone call that I wish had happened but didn't.
I wanted to do better with Dad, but that meant man-to-man talk. Son to father. That was not going to be easy. Dad had graduated from high school and worked in a factory; he was a self-made, hard-working man. Well respected in the community, he eventually became mayor of Lafayette. He was a part of that generation that lived with a lot of privacy. I never remember him saying, "I love you." In my forties I finally told him I loved him, and then he told me he loved me. It was a bit like getting an eight-year-old boy to say "sorry" to his little sister-the words didn't come out easily. That was the first time we hugged each other as adults.
Time passed without my bringing up such difficult conversations. Life was moving along like swift rapids. My business in Atlanta was demanding, challenging, and rewarding during the boom years of the 1990s. Our children were growing up, finishing college, and getting married. We were becoming grandparents.
As for my dad? Like any widower or widow, he moped a little and coped a lot. He remarried a couple of years after Mom's death. His new wife, Edna, was a wonderful companion for him. Things seemed back to normal. And "normal" included we men not talking to each other about matters much beyond news, sports, business, and weather.
Several years later, Dad began to have lung trouble. In 2001 I got "the call" to go back to Lafayette because Dad's lung disease had advanced dramatically. He was in the hospital again. We knew he had an incurable, fatal illness, but none of us knew when it would take him. All of a sudden it seemed the moment was upon us. The end-of-game buzzer was about to sound. I realized any discussion of his final plans must start with me.
Driving to the hospital on a drab, gray day, I turned on familiar streets that hadn't changed much in nearly fifty years. Once this was my world, but since leaving home I'd lived in New York, San Francisco, Dallas, and Atlanta. I was privileged to travel to Tokyo, London, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Hong Kong. Lafayette seemed rather small and ordinary. I was struck by the reality that the world I'd grown up in and the world I now lived in might as well be on different continents. And the same was true for Dad and me. We seemed to be in different worlds.
Dad was in the same community hospital in which I was born. It's curious how birth and death stand side by side. Odd neighbors indeed. I'd been at this unspectacular brick box of a building over the years to visit various friends and relatives, but today was different. It was beckoning me to a final meeting with my dad. What would he say? An even more unnerving thought: What would I say?
I knew I'd not done well with my desire to communicate better with him following Mom's death. My rationalization? If anyone had permission to communicate poorly with his family, as an accountant I did! Being a "numbers guy," I wasn't supposed to be the world's best communicator.
So, here's my confession. My father was eighty-three years old and within forty-eight hours of death. I was headed to his bedside without ever having had a single conversation with him about how to handle things after his death.
I had worked on estate plans for hundreds of clients, written books about family financial matters, spoken to many conferences and charitable organizations about estate planning. But I knew very little of Dad's finances, was unsure what was in his will, and had no idea how he wanted to dispose of assets. During all those visits and phone calls over the years, we'd never talked about what to do upon his death. I knew the biblical principles of finance and wealth transfer yet hadn't talked to Dad about his final affairs.
I pulled up at the hospital and slowly walked inside. It smelled of cleaning solution and didn't look like any interior decorator had ever worked it over. Some nurses bustled by, while others bent over desks cluttered with papers and computers. I found my way along the corridors to his room.
Surprisingly, Dad didn't look like a man who was dying. His mind was in great shape, and he was talkative. But his breathing was labored like a man with a heavy weight on his chest. Dad knew he would never return home, and I did too. This would probably be our last time to talk.
I was relieved when Dad brought up the matter of his last wishes. Most of his desires were pretty straightforward-divide his stuff equally among the three sons. But there was one point where Dad got emotional. He wanted my middle brother, David, to have his car. He had not put this in his will. But with anxiety in his voice, he was urgently telling me, his oldest son, to take care of it.
Many years earlier Dad had helped Wendel and me each get a good car at a crucial point in our lives, but not David. He wanted to make that right. He knew David needed the car more than Wendel or I did. A simple yet loving last gesture from a father who wanted his sons treated fairly.
Dad talked about a few funeral matters and some issues related to the care of his wife. His lucid discussion and heartfelt desire to help my brother were bright spots in a dreary day. We finished, I told him I loved him, and I left. It was my last conversation alone with my father.
I'm sure scenes like I've described occur all over the country every day. Working with thousands of clients over the years, I've seen it regularly. In fact I've seen it at both ends-older folks who haven't prepared their heirs and younger folks who haven't asked if they can be of assistance in any way as their parents prepare for their aging years.
It's common for parents to leave these matters to the last days or last minutes of life. But we don't always know when those last days will be. Judy and I were dating when her father, a promising young doctor, learned he had cancer. After all the years of school and residency and getting his practice established, he and his family were beginning to enjoy the high income of a physician.
Judy and I accelerated our wedding date so her dad could walk her down the aisle. Tragically, he didn't make it. Our wedding was filled with mixed emotions-we had just seen many of our wedding guests a few weeks earlier at a funeral.
Despite my father-in-law's education and sophistication, he hadn't prepared his family for his death. One of his best friends sold life insurance, but he hadn't bought any. Within months of his death, Judy's mom had to return to work as a nurse at age forty-three. Judy's youngest brother, about twelve at the time, had lost not only his father to death, but also his mother to the workforce. Later they sold their house and moved to an apartment. Judy's mom struggled financially for many years because her husband did not prepare properly. It didn't have to be that way.
Beginning a Burden, Igniting a Passion
When Dad died, he was the last of Judy's and my parents to pass away. After his memorial service, I realized that I was kind of the head of the clan now. As oldest son and already a grandfather, I knew I had a position of responsibility in the family. I wanted to do a better job planning and discussing my estate with my children than I had done with my father. We needed to break the silence on matters of death, asset transfer, charitable giving, and preparing our children for what they might or might not receive.
Analysts project that $41 trillion (that's right, this number has a "t" on it) of wealth will transfer in the United States over the next fifty years. A trillion is a million of one millions. Do you know how long it would take to count to a trillion? If you counted nonstop with no bathroom breaks, without eating or sleeping, it would take 31,710 years to count to one trillion. It would be a boring 1.3 million years to count to $41 trillion. As big and unimaginable as the U.S. government debt is, it is only one-sixth of the amount that will move out of the hands of one generation into another.
Dad and I didn't do it right. Judy's dad didn't do it right. I see others doing it wrong every day. I have a burden to see all this change-starting with you. You don't have to make the same mistakes. Some adult children are about to inherit a sum that has the capacity to change their lives-for better or worse. Some charities may-or may not-receive bequests that could help them make lasting spiritual, cultural, or medical changes.
One would think that this issue of wealth transfer involving trillions and trillions would be big news. Surely, people would be talking about this, acting upon it, seizing opportunities, making plans. But seeing the same problem on both sides of my family across forty years and with many others time after time, I find that most people have done nothing.
Oh, they may have a will-but it is often out of date. And they almost certainly have not had those important conversations with children and family members that prepare them for what they will face after parents die. Most of us feel quite unprepared for that type of family discussion. We are intimidated by the emotions it might bring out. That's why I've written this book to help people-rich and not-so-rich, men and women, young and old-successfully complete a difficult and complex process.
I think there is a better way. And I've found that there are biblical principles that can guide us through this process of preparing for "when," not "if," something happens. From a straightforward financial man, here are the straightforward realities:
(1) We will all die.
(2) We will take nothing with us.
(3) We will probably die at a time other than when we would like.
(4) Someone else will get our stuff.
(5) We can decide only before we die who gets our stuff after we die.
Why Keep Reading a Book Reminding Me of Death-Especially Mine?
Necessarily, this book will discuss death. But it does so in the context of helping you live life to the fullest. In the Bible, Paul tells Timothy of the goal to "take hold of the life that is truly life" (1 Timothy 6: 19). I want you to be one of the few, the proud, the ones who finish well. We can still laugh at ourselves in the midst of a serious topic. That's why I have included cartoons at the beginning of each chapter. We might as well smile as we grapple with the challenges of death.
Some estate planning books focus on the challenges of the super-rich and their desire to reduce estate taxes. Such books are usually written on a technical level and focus on complicated trusts, foundations, and techniques. Rather than focus solely on the legal, financial, and technical aspects of estate planning and inheritances, I think readers can benefit from the relational and spiritual dimensions of wealth transfer. So, much of this book deals with family relations (and conflicts), the importance of giving, and God's principles and promises.
News articles and popular culture often focus on high-profile family feuds. Their typical case study is Dad the Entrepreneur and Control Freak who founded a successful company and is worth hundreds of millions.
Dad the Entrepreneur and Control Freak spends a modest fortune
on complicated schemes with Good Ol' Boy Lawyer to keep
the Old Wife and her New Husband from getting the riches. Or,
the so-called estate planning gets messier when there is a remarriage.
Dad the Control Freak doesn't want the Old Wife to take
all the money away from his New Young Greedy Wife. The Old
and Resentful Kids try to influence Dad the Control Freak to exclude
the Young Spoiled Kids of New Young Greedy Wife from an
equal inheritance. Some of the Old and Resentful Kids have
worked for years in the company to get Dad's approval; others
have rebellious lifestyles.