Don’t delay the “conversation”

Steve Gammill

The “conversation” has little to do with the amount of money you’ve been told you must accumulate before you can quit work.  The conversation should focus on what you want your retirement to look like when that time comes. Many of us fail to ever have the conversation until “that time” is nearly upon us. And what do you think that does to your options?

Consider a client I’ll call Joan. Joan and her husband, Charles, have grown children, one of which insists she wants mom and dad to live with her when they finally reach a point at which they can no longer care for themselves or each other. Insisting, mind you. Another child is already investigating the types and locations of various assisted living centers, what they offer and what they cost.

“Believe it or not, no one has actually asked what I might like my life to look like in 20 years,” Joan told me. “They have asked me about where I would live and if we have enough money to afford it. I’m still enjoying working for the law firm I started with 15 years ago. Yes, I know there will eventually come a time when I can’t do that job. But I hope I’m going to want to be active and productive beyond a needle point coffee group. I might like to be a Wal-mart  greeter or teach a course on the Internet or at our community college  to young men and women on how to better enjoy their working environment. Who knows?”

We can have the conversation when you’re 23 or 66 — or many times in between. The conclusions you draw will, and should, change every few years or so. As you age and your life takes different directions, so will your outlook.

Is the definition of retirement that date when one finally become free to quit work? That’s traditional, for sure — the “freedom from work date.”

Today, we’re seeing more and more people excited about a more modern definition: that approximate date when one becomes “free to work.” Not only do I see this among my clients and friends, I’m seeing the shift in a large number of professionals who engage in various forms of life counseling.

In my estate planing practice, we often begin with life stories drawn from focused questions that might reveal, for example,  how your father and others responsible for the financial support of their families looked at retirement. It’s comparable to asking your father about three years into his retirement, “and just how is this working out for you, Dad?”

Is he in love with his life? Is he finding it to be not all he had hoped for, but acceptable? Is he looking for something different, but concerned that then he wouldn’t be really “retired?” Does he feel some guilt he’s no longer a bread-winner and really isn’t all that happy with how he spends his days?

Even just one story telling session involving both Joan and Charles will go a long way toward learning what they’d really like to do if they could try anything they wanted. They will form an understanding of what they will, or won’t be involved in and the extent to which each can support and celebrate the other’s choices. It’s even more interesting when we realize during the conversation the new adventures might not produce a dime of income. It’s usually a win-win situation, the results of which will drive a lot of the language we put into the client’s living trust documents.

The conversation helps ensure their estate plans actually work.