Writing a will can be scary. It’s the idea of coming to terms with your own end. That day, when you will no longer be around. Even worse, is considering the times leading up to it. Who will take care of me? What will they want in return? Will they only do it because of what they might get?
The movies and TV shows have given us this concept of the “reading of the will” where all of the potential beneficiaries sit behind an oversized oak desk covered in piles of paper, where a lawyer proceeds to read the will – eventually being told what they will receive. Most of the time, it’s a total surprise, however, in the days and weeks leading up to that moment, some of them may have had tried to determine the total value of the estate, the number of beneficiaries and how much their share might be.
This usually occurs in the absence of information, a person will make up their own version of the truth or what they hope to happen.
What if there was a different way? What if the reading of the will was a non-event because its contents were already known? Imagine the reactions then… Shock, disappointment, anger, hurt feelings could be all but non-existent. Perhaps those feelings could even be replaced by love or admiration, contentment, or joy and perhaps even a glimmer of hope as to what this new-found inheritance can create for the future.
Much of what is presented here comes from Willing Wisdom, a book by New York Times best selling author Dr. Thomas Deans. In it, he presents an alternative to the secrecy that has surrounded wills for generations. How have some families managed to prepare the beneficiaries for what is about to come, regardless of the size of the estate, and therefore set the beneficiaries up for individual and familial success rather than court challenges and destroyed relationships?
Dr. Deans introduces the concept of an annual family meeting to discuss one’s will. It’s done with immediate family members and any friends or distant family members that may be mentioned in the will. It has the possibility of turning a normally morbid conversation into aa joyous occasion to talk about what’s important in the family: dreams, goals, and legacy.
Input is sought, decisions are made, the will is updated and then, the process repeats itself. This idea of input is not about how much a beneficiary might want or on what timeframe, but input with respect to seven very specific and poignant questions.
During our lifetimes, success is often measured in a variety of ways: houses, cars, money, titles, social status etc… Perhaps in death, we should be measured by our relationships and specifically, the condition of those relationships.
As a Family Enterprise Advisor, I was trained to help facilitate conversations, to ask questions and stay curious when listening to answers. Over the years, this has led me to think more and more about the legacy that individuals leave. Having witnessed countless misunderstandings, listened to numerous unanswered questions, and watched estates disappear in legal fees, my conclusion matched that which Dr. Deans describes.
The answer lies in a conversation or a series of them over a period of time.
The challenge is a radical change in how we approach our wills. By openly discussing the contents of our wills with our beneficiaries, we eliminate the mystery. We help beneficiaries understand WHY we made the decisions we did. A discussion about our will is an opportunity to inspire future generations. Whether the gift is dollars or memories, the amount is irrelevant. The inspiration for what the recipient is able to do with that gift becomes the centre-point of the conversations.
A grandmother could provide a grandchild with her years of wisdom and remind that child to use the money to dream. Start a business or go to college or see a part of the world. Perhaps she suggests that the money be used as a start to financial freedom. A conversation like this could change how that person sees their inheritance and more importantly can tie the experience to the grandmother. “We had wonderful times with Grandma and loved the stories she told of her life . . . and now, after she is gone, we can continue that tradition and start with our trip to Paris” Compare that legacy with one where grandma leaves the same amount of money and while it may still be used to visit Paris… the tie back to Grandma is just not the same.
Discussions around wills are never easy. In fact, just writing a will is a challenge. With roughly 125 million North Americans over 18 not having a will, the first step must be to just get one written. Then, as a second step, consider eliminating the secrecy. Think about how much better prepared your heirs might be if they understood why you made the decisions you did.
As advisors, we have reviewed countless wills and have provided feedback to assist with the preparations. Whether you need to write your first will, think its time for a review or would like to tear it up and start over, feel free to reach out to us and start a conversation. We would love to help you start to shape your legacy.