Read an Excerpt
You and I have never met, but already I know the single most important fact about you: You, your parents, and your spouse will die one day.
The death of a parent or spouse is often a shattering experience, for two reasons: first, because you lose forever a primary source of love and emotional support; and second, because precisely at this moment when you're most emotionally vulnerable, you may need to make critical financial decisions.
When you pause to think about it, these can be terrifying prospects. So terrifying, in fact, that most people refuse to think about them. As a result, the tragedy of death is often compounded into financial catastrophe. When your parent or spouse dies, he or she won't feel the consequences but you will.
If you're a survivor or a potential survivor, what can you do? Until now, most experts have assumed that you could do very little because technically, what your parents do with their estate is none of your business. Mom and Dad can leave all they have or none of it to you, and they don't even have to tell you what they decide. If they leave the estate to you in trust, that's traditionally none of your business, either: The trustee, not you, is in charge of the assets.
For these reasons, dozens of guidebooks have been written to help men and women write their wills and plan their estates. But inheritors whose needs may be far greater, and whose powers are far fewer have had few places to turn for help. This book seeks to fill that void whether the need arises before the death of your parents or spouse, at the time of death, or years after the death. It seeks to help inheritors and potential inheritors avoid unnecessary suffering and additional loss when a loved one dies.
10 BASIC RULES
For starters, here are 10 basic rules that should serve you in good stead until you've digested the rest of this book:
1 Dealing with an estate before or after death is important. Even if your family's estate is modest, your failure (or your family's failure) to pay attention to it can cause considerable pain and expense to you and your relatives. It can mean that decisions about your family's property will be made by strangers in courts or in corporate bureaucracies. It can mean your parents' or spouse's property will be disposed of in a manner they never intended.
2 It's not that important. Estate and inheritance matters shouldn't be ignored, but neither should they consume you. Money and property per se don't buy happiness or solve problems; they merely provide greater opportunity to become happy or miserable, depending on your nature. Too many happy families have been torn apart by legal fights over inheritance. Maintain your perspective: Your ultimate goal is a happy, healthy, and rewarding life. A material inheritance may be a means to achieve that end, but it's not the end in itself.
3 Ninety percent of the problems you encounter after your parents (or spouse) die can be eliminated by talking to them about death and money before they die. This book offers practical advice about doing just that. If you can't talk to your parents about death and money (and don't feel bad most of us are in the same boat), or if you're already an inheritor, this book will, of course, address your situation as well.
4 Seek good advice. In the long run, a few hundred (or even a few thousand) dollars for a good lawyer, accountant, or financial adviser is money very well spent.
5 No expert or book has all the answers. You know your parents better than anyone including me. Do your homework but make your plans based on your unique knowledge of your family's unique situation.
6 The biggest obstacles you'll encounter as an heir will be emotional matters, not financial ones. Many problems that appear on the surface to be financial like jockeying for assets or income with your siblings, trustees, and lawyers actually stem from emotional roots. To tackle your inheritance issues in a pragmatic fashion, you probably need good therapists or family counselors as much as you need good lawyers and financial planners.
7 Prepare yourself not only for your parents' death, but for their incapacity. Dealing with Alzheimer's disease, stroke, caregivers, and nursing homes may be more exhausting and expensive than dealing with death and estate issues.
8 If you've inherited more money than you need, develop a serious approach to philanthropy. This serves not only the worthy causes you fund but your own needs as well by reducing your tax burden and, more important, by providing you and your inheritance with a sense of worthiness.
9 Find meaningful work for yourself, even if you don't need to work for a living. As Camus put it: "Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies."
10 Whatever you do, do it sooner rather than later. Death rarely arrives at a convenient or predictable time. Be prepared. A will can always be changed while its author is still alive. It can't be changed once its author has died.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
You don't have to read this book from start to finish. It will serve you best if you focus on the stage you've reached in the inheritance process. For example:
- If your parents or spouse are still living, concentrate on Part 1; doing so will make your life infinitely easier after they die so much easier, in fact, that you may be able to skip Parts 2 and 3 altogether.
- If your parents or spouse have just died, jump to Part 2, which discusses what you need to do at the time of death and in the months that follow.
- If the death occurred years ago, and you have questions or problems about the way things have turned out for example, if you're the beneficiary of a trust and you're unhappy with the trustee's performance skip Parts 1 and 2 and proceed directly to Part 3.
Whichever section you consult, use the glossary at the back of the book to look up terms you don't understand. You'll also find other helpful resources and information there.
Above all, throughout this book you'll find practical advice and good examples of famous and ordinary people who've walked in your shoes. You'll find useful names, addresses, and phone numbers. And you'll find comfort.
Thanks to awesome breakthroughs in biotechnology, surgical techniques, and DNA research, some medical scientists believe that the human life span could be doubled or tripled by the end of the 21st century, thereby postponing the inevitability of death or even eliminating death altogether. Unfortunately, you and I won't be around to find out if that happens. For the foreseeable future, we must make the most of the only life we have. One of the best ways of doing that is by dealing sensibly with death. By confronting death with the proper knowledge and preparation, you can make the best of an essential and inevitable human transition. Regardless of the dollars involved, dealing maturely with loved ones about life's most sensitive issues can be one of life's most rewarding experiences.
Copyright © 1999 by Dan Rottenberg