Estate planning is a funny thing: We don't give it much thought--until we do. When we're leading active, vigorous lives, who can be bothered--who wants to be bothered--by thoughts of mortality? As we get older and more isolated, we may start seeing those wills and estates as a 'pay back' device. And we do so at our peril.
I was reminded of this by hearing Hendrik Hartog talk about his book, "Someday All of This Will be Yours," on the Diane Rehm show. Hartog catalogues a century's worth of emotional perils and legal pitfalls that come with leaving an inheritance that is seen as unfair to one or all of your children. As he explained on air, his aim in presenting a history of cases between 1850 and 1950 was to look at what they show about parent-child relations and how, in a time before pensions and Social Security, people used the promise of inheritance to secure care for themselves in old age--a grown child was often called upon to stay home and care for an aged parent-.
But Hartog made an important point beyond legal and cultural history. Even though the cases he discusses come from a different time and era, some things never change. People he talks to today tell him similar stories of inheritance plans gone bad in terms of family harmony and unity.
All of this is just another way of saying, it doesn't have to be so, that we can clear the air so that our grown children not only know what's in our estate but what our guiding principles are in dividing up those worldly goods between them and others. Great movie scenes though they make, the reading of the will ought to have no unpleasant surprises--in fact, no surprises at all. The more our grown children know what we're thinking and where and how we saw fairness in drawing up our will, the fewer sources of disharmony we'll leave behind.
The will isn't pay back time. We do want to be remembered fondly, don't we?