Stories aid estate planning process

Steve Gammill

What do I mean when I talk about story based estate planning? The best way to explain the concept is to offer a couple of examples.

When Bill and Carole, my hypothetical client couple, first visited me years ago, they told me about their children and mentioned one of their sons is autistic. That opened a myriad of possibilities, all of which required discussion, in planning how their beneficiaries should best receive their inheritance. “How did you feel when Mattie first came into your life?” I asked.

“You know, there was nothing unusual about him that day — if you weren’t his parent. He was just a baby, like all the others in the hospital. But to me he looked like, well, I don’t know, he made me feel filled and whole and inspired, just like I was looking at the rising sun on a morning in the mountains,” Carole said.

“Physically, I guess, he had this hair — lots of it — all over his head and he lay there with his little arms positioned like he was a weightlifter,” she said. “Bill came in right after I got to hold him and while I was feeding him. All Bill could see was the back of his head, and he said, ‘Man, that’s a lot of hair!’ But, you know, I saw the tears in his eyes. It was almost like this was our very first child — even though it wasn’t. I told Bill that I still wanted to name him Matthew. I’d always wanted to call my child Mattie.”

What a wonderful and insightful story. If I didn’t encourage stories, Carole’s response might have been something like, “Good. Really good. Just a baby, like all babies are — but I do remember he had a lot of hair.” Lots of people might provide that sort of terse answer. When that happens, I simply ask a more open, and perhaps more focused, followup question: “Can you tell me what you remember about that first time? What did Mattie smell like? What did it feel like to actually hold him in your arms? What did Bill say?”

A recent article written by John Warnick quotes a story by Nancy Sheehan titled “A Sister’s Helping Hand” that appeared in the May 1996 issue of Reader’s Digest.

“Brielle and Kyrie Jackson were born prematurely. While they had spent months together in their mother’s womb, now at birth the two tiny girls were placed in separate incubators to reduce the risk of infection. Kyrie, the larger of the two, weighed only 2 pounds,

3 ounces. She began gaining weight and strength immediately. But Brielle struggled. Soon her condition worsened. As Brielle’s blood oxygen level plummeted and her heart rate soared, the intensive care nurse fought to save her. As she met with Brielle’s worried parents, she offered one final suggestion to save their daughter. ‘Let me just try putting Brielle in with her sister to see if that helps.’ The parents consented and the nurse placed the squirming Brielle in Kyrie’s incubator. Brielle snuggled next to her sister and stopped squirming. Within minutes, her blood oxygen levels improved and her heart rate subsided. As Brielle dozed peacefully, Kyrie wrapped her tiny arm around her smaller sister.”

It might not be difficult to tell your attorney the nuts and bolts of how you want a child’s money to be handled. Telling a story, however, offers the client the opportunity to learn what they really mean and exactly why. The depth of their care, concern and love can even be expressed in the plan itself. The result is a far richer and effective answer to the question, “How do you want to see your child receive his inheritance.”

Bill and Carole are the experts in the room, not their attorney. I’m expected to know how to provide for special needs people. That’s very different from knowing the wonder of a particular special needs person.