Make your voice heard in estate planning

Steve Gammill
Steve Gammill

One of the more important concepts in modern estate and business planning is that your plan should be uniquely yours — not an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all plan. A number of recent studies have confirmed that very thing: When asked, most children say they’d much prefer to have their mother’s voice and other memories of her than the monetary and physical inheritance they received.

How do we go about leaving your self, along with your stuff, for your loved ones? One way is by inserting your voice into your written plan and making sure it’s a paramount feature of the plan.

I have a colleague who created an estate plan for a wealthy client, a man with children, grandchildren and a family history of which he was proud. When he’d reviewed the final documents, he said: “You know, I have the strong feeling that if I were to tear off the first page of this trust and then the signature page, I’d have the very same trust as all of your other clients.”

Is that what we want? Most of us want our children and loved ones to read our estate planning documents and smile as they hear us speaking to them from those pages.

Besides saying, “I want my children to hear my voice,” there are other important reasons to make yourself heard through your estate plan. Why did you make one child a trustee and not the other? If there’s a reason — especially if it might lead to anger or hurt feelings — isn’t there something you’d want to tell the kids as to why you chose that road? If your estate plan distributes your personal treasures a certain way, is there something you’d like to tell the grandkids about your choices?

If one child has married into significant wealth and the other two children live in a meager fashion, you might choose to distribute your money differently. If so, do you want to explain your feelings and reasons?

Believe it or not, this isn’t a new concept. But somehow, in the hustle and bustle of business and making money over the past couple of hundred years, it’s sort of disappeared. There is, however, a movement started a few years ago to resurrect customized planning and “ownership” planning.

George Washington’s will — about 35 pages in his own handwriting — is interesting in this respect. In the middle of it he has written a short paragraph.

Apparently, he’d acquired five swords over his lifetime — probably from his military service. He willed one sword to each of five nephews. And in that paragraph he stated: “These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood except it be for self-defense or in defense of their country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof.” Do you think that effected the value of the gifts to the nephews? Certainly if they knew their Uncle George, there would be no question he was speaking to them.

I’ve developed a pretty good process for this, and most of my clients have found it fascinating and the results valuable.

I might ask about some really difficult challenges you’ve seen your spouse or children overcome and how you feel about their efforts, or perhaps some special talents or gifts you think they’ve been given and the great potential you see in them. I record the conversation and burn it on a CD. You’ll get copies and be free to distribute them to your children, grandchildren and other loved ones. What a gift: your legacy, your stories, told in your own voice, they’ll have long after you’re gone.

At various places within your estate planning documents I’ll insert language, sometimes in your own words, inside of a sort of text box or, as some call it, a dialogue box. Here’s where you can elaborate and explain and tell stories, if you choose, to your heart’s content.

Of course, some more traditional planners are reluctant to go in this direction due to a fear that too much wordage that doesn’t have that legal tone can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of the provisions of the estate plan. If care is taken in the drafting, that issue can be avoided.

When you actually see your personal words or thoughts written in your legal documents, you’ll understand the importance of hearing your voice through your estate plan.