The Dress Rehearsal

Every few years, our family has (or at least tries to have) what we call a “Dress Rehearsal.” It’s an event where, together with my wife and our adult children, we meet with our independent financial advisors, and sometimes with our attorney. The announcement is made that Mom and Dad are in Africa and were just eaten by a lion. Now what? Ample time is allowed for pseudo grieving, which takes the form of nervous laughter and then the serious discussion ensues.

First item is to address is Mom’s and Dad’s funeral wishes. Cremation (if the lion spits us up) or burial? Our desire is burial, so the next question is “where?” We talk about our preference for a funeral director, the family lot, location of gravesites, and type of casket. My preference is plain and simple, like the ones I used to see on the 50’s TV series Gunsmoke. My wife is ok with that as well, but wonders if, perhaps, someone might paint a few flowers on it. Hmm… a great project for our artistically talented granddaughters.   As for the service, it’s for our children and grandchildren and not for us, so we want their wishes to prevail. Our younger granddaughter, however, knowing my predilection to M&Ms, promised she would sprinkle some into my grave.

On to the “paper work” and “paperless work.” We review the location of important documents: wills, trusts, birth certificates, marriage certificate, passports, cemetery plot deed, vehicle titles, mortgages, and more along with the combination to our safe and location of our safe deposit box and keys (assuring them they have the right of entry). We then review the roster of key people: attorney, accountant, financial advisors, and insurance agents. Log-in information and passwords for bill paying and account control are reviewed. Likewise for other tangible and even digital assets like social media and websites. We talk about which monthly charges go on credit cards automatically and which are direct debits to our checking accounts, where our children are already co-signatories.

Then on to the beneficiary designations for our retirement accounts. We need to be sure they match our wills and trusts, as those designations actually supersede other documents and we need to be certain they accurately reflect our wishes. We review our wills and trusts, which we update regularly responding to changes in the law and according to our attorney’s recommendations. Our daughter and son (47 and 45) know that they will be co-executors and co-trustees and thus have the total independence and control they have earned. We open our balance sheet (something I rigorously update on a monthly basis), and discuss our portfolio strategy and the flow of assets through the trusts and the options that our children will have. Our goal is to not simply keep the family informed of the asset values, but of the strategy that has made their growth possible. Though the disposition of invested assets will ultimately be their decision, some understanding of history never hurts.

As we discuss our family’s donor advised charitable fund, we remind our daughter and son that they are successors to my wife and me in making grant requests. Sharing our past preferences is important, but we have named our children as successor donors, understanding that their philanthropic goals may not match ours. While we want to encourage them and our grandchildren to make choices in a focused manner, where we believe our giving has made a difference, we recognize that, ultimately, the choice is theirs. We’d also like them continue a program we already started where our grandchildren are invited to make individual grant recommendations (in their own names) and a collective one as well. We feel this as a good way to further stimulate their focus on strategic philanthropy and coalesce already close cousins.

Next comes discussion of material possessions: homes, cars, furnishings, artwork, jewelry, etc. When it comes to homes, we’ve seen too many disasters of children owning their parents’ homes together, the arguments over value, maintenance and usage, so we urge our children to sell them and split the cash. As for other material possessions that have neither been previously gifted nor “promised” based on prior requests, we suggest that our children flip a coin to see who goes first and then, alternately, make choices based on sentimental rather than material value. My brother and I did it that way and it seemed to work out well, though I’m not sure he ever forgave me for winning the first selection.

But what if the lion only opts to dine on one of us, and leaves the other “incapacitated?”

Since our estate calls for the surviving spouse (and trusts) to inherit everything, it’s time to talk about long-term care. Fortunately, we purchased quality long-term care insurance many years ago, so that would help with the financial part. But where would we wish to be? At home or in a long-term care facility. Though we have not made absolute commitments at this time, we’re trending toward living in a community. Our reasoning is rather simple: we do not wish to be burdens to our children and it’s our belief that living in a community, with the assurance of support services we might need, would give our children more peace of mind than having to worry about our being at home (and, under no circumstances, their home), where the scheduling and provision of services is guaranteed to be a challenge.

The frosting on the cake is essential: our Health Care Proxies. This is the legal document that gives our children the power to make health care related decisions on our behalf. We discuss the circumstances under which we do and do not want life sustaining efforts. Then come the Durable Powers of Attorney and our Living Wills. Again, we want clarity, not guessing when the end is near.

So why the morbidity in springtime? Because the time for planning, simply stated, is not on the way home from the funeral. Give your children a gift. Give them some peace of mind. Do your planning. Consider your own “Dress Rehearsal.” Let them know that you’ve done your homework to make life easier and more comfortable for them.

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