Stories often reveal true desires for estate planning

Steve Gammill
Steve Gammill

There’s a parlor game I learned a few years ago that can be ideal for gatherings of friends. It’s called, “My House.” When you were a kid, you and your friends would say, “Come on over to my house.” Remember that?

The next time you have some people over for dinner and the dishes have been cleared away, give each person, including yourself, a sheet of paper and a pencil. Ask each person to take about five minutes and draw the floor plan of their childhood home — or a home they lived in during childhood they think of first when they think of my house. Anticipate that each will protest they can’t draw, so you’ll have to convince them it’s just a game and they don’t need to be architects.  Tell them to pay special attention to each room and to the outdoors, the tree house, the bushes, the garage and the front porch. Their memories will be rich and will flood through the pencil.

After everyone has finished their drawings, have each person in turn each lead a guided tour of his or her house. Travel from room to room and, of course, the yard. Ask them to describe each spot in the house or yard that brings forth a memory or story. Pay special attention to smells and emotions that come up. One lady couldn’t recall anything about her house and complained the game was meaningless for her. Then she got to the yard. Apparently, everything in her young life happened in the yard. She might still be talking. I’ve never played this game without at least one couple exclaiming they’d learned things about their spouse they’d never known.

So what do you see in this parlor game beyond just a fun activity with friends? Do you see the potential for deep meaning and revelation from the person taking you on the tour?

Not long ago, a new client came into my office. Bill is about my age and was raised, as I was, in a pretty traditional way in the 1940s and 1950s. He has a wonderful family, and there’s a lot of love there. His main thought, he told me, was to leave his wealth to his children equally. After a little conversation, though, he realized equality wasn’t exactly what he meant. He meant he didn’t want to treat some more favorably than others, but recognized that not all of his children were equal kids. Hear the difference?

One child married a man who’s apparently more interested in her money than her. Another daughter has developed a passion for educating children in the ways of nature in the mountains, and a son is a budding entrepreneur who hasn’t quite yet, in Bill’s opinion, appreciated the appropriate amount of risk to take on any given project. Bill suggested he mentor with one of the local real estate investor groups.

And so we launched a very focused process designed to elicit Bill’s stories. “Think about your youngest child,” I began. “How do you want her to actually receive her inheritance?” He thought for awhile and provided me with some carefully thought out, bullet-point responses for his nearly grown teen-age daughter.

This approach takes us far deeper than I would have ever gone with a client in my early years. Yet I explained to him that his response, even though well-considered, was just not enough for something as important as his precious children. I asked, “So what is one of your earliest memories about the financial circumstances you grew up in?” He responded with a story about how his dad cashed his paycheck each week and then mom and dad would place a certain amount of money in mason jars kept in the kitchen cupboard — one for rent, one for groceries, one for this and another for that. He grew up thinking that’s how people budgeted and kept track of their money. He didn’t learn any differently until he was nearly grown.

After Bill told a couple more stories in response to that question, I asked two other questions: “Looking back, what was a time in your life when you were most concerned about your financial situation? What did you learn from that?” By now, Bill was really into it and was telling stories freely. I might have asked another question or two, but nearly all of the next 90 minutes was spent with Bill telling stories about the meaning of money.

Stories told in response to focused questions nearly always generate a thread — a thread revealing rich, deeply held values and meanings.

By now, Bill and his wife, Carole, have a much clearer understanding about what they’d actually like to see happen when each of their children receives his or her share of the estate. And I can more clearly fashion strategies and options to get them there.