In the French movie, Summer Hours, three forty-something siblings grow apart over how to dispose of a beloved summer home and the valuable items inside it. When their mother died, she left no specific instructions--just the hope that the place would be kept going for the next generation. I'm not giving the ending away to say that the mother's wishes go unfulfilled and that the relationship among the siblings deteriorates.
King Lear also fumbled his estate planning. He let his children know who would get what--but not in quite the best way.
Movies and literature are filled with sad tales that surround the making or not making of plans for worldly goods. Estate planning runs amok or doesn't take place at all. While some of us have been orderly about the process--made out wills, told our children where accounts can be found. We may have skipped one important step: talking with our children about the disposal and dispersal of the lesser items.
Not that I've taken this advice myself, but I'm reminded of the need to make such arrangements--to ask my grown children who wants the piano and who would enjoy the Phyllis Plattner watercolor that hangs in the living room? Would anyone like my collection of wood, porcelain and tin cats? And what of the other things in our house--items paterfamilias and I might not prize but that may carry great sentimental value for one of them. I should gather our grown children together and do a walk-through. It needn't be gruesome. It doesn't mean we're about to leave this world. It's just a chance to put a plan in place that everybody is happy with--and avoid a post-mortem blow-up. Of course, we wouldn't be there to see the latter, but still....
In a Washington Post article, Adolf Gundersen wrote about his experience in doing just such planning with his 80-year-old parents and his siblings. The evening--his wife dubbed it a "pre-mortem"--of putting on paper what would happen when his parents were gone "combined the gravitas of a memorial service with the easy sharing of a holiday dinner. And the best part of it was that my parents were there to enjoy being the center of attention." The author and his four brothers decided what would happen to a cabin in the woods that they all loved but didn't want to manage.The get-together also touched on discussions about financial and health care planning that his parents admitted they were "weary of dealing with on their own."
Gundersen writes about some of the reasons why he, his brothers and parents waited so long to have this conversation. "Getting us kids actively and directly involved in so many facets of their lives would mean a huge role reversal....For a long time neither of them had seemed psychologically ready for such a gathering."
Depending on where we are in our life cycle, we don't necessarily have to invite our children into a full "pre-mortem" discussion. (One friend admits that her mother has a dispersal discussion with him and with each of his brothers whenever they visit. Her agenda: to find a home for her clown collection--something none of the children admire or desire.) But it wouldn't be a role-reversal for us to invite our grown children over to tell us which of our possessions they'd like to have once we no longer need them. Not that I need them to assure me that someone will keep my cat collection together.