Timing is everything.
While contemplating changes to my advance directive a few years ago, I was delighted to discover a way my body could be useful to others after it was no longer of use to me. I couldn’t wait to share this good news with my husband. That evening, over a quiet dinner and a second glass of wine, I said, “I know what I want to do with my body.” My husband raised an eyebrow. I forged ahead. “When I die, I want you to donate my remains to the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. They help forensic pathologists study the decay rate of corpses.” What followed was not the conversation either of us had hoped for.
It’s difficult to find a good time to discuss your wishes concerning your final days and final gifts. Such conversations are best not postponed until tragedy has struck, but, rather, should be conducted in as relaxed an atmosphere as possible and with as many of the persons concerned present as possible.
While it may seem counterintuitive, Thanksgiving can actually be an excellent time for such a discussion. It’s one of the few times of the year when far-flung families come together. It’s an especially appropriate time for you to share with those you love that you’re grateful that your estate plan will spare them the painful, difficult decisions should illness incapacitate you. It’s a wonderful time to express gratitude for the tangible and intangible riches you’ve accumulated, and to share how you’ve ensured that at least the tangible portion of these you’ve taken care to distribute in a manner for which you hope your family will also feel grateful.
And so, some time between the dinner and the parade and the big game and your brother-in-law’s heading for a nap face-down in the pumpkin pie, some quiet interlude can be an excellent time to contemplate or convey information about your estate plan.
A couple who have young children, for example, may want to share with older family members all the people they’re grateful they have in their lives, and explore who among those they treasure might also be a good and willing guardian, should tragedy tear them from their children’s lives. One of the best gifts parents can give their children is a life insurance policy with provisions to ensure the funds are managed properly so that the children won’t suffer want in addition to the loss of one or both parents.
Older family members may find Thanksgiving a good time to make sure their existing estate plan is still appropriate for their own and their loved ones’ evolving circumstances. It’s at family gatherings that we can become more aware of impending changes in others’ lives. It may become clear, for example, that a family member is unlikely ever to be able to manage their finances without guidance. Marriages and divorces, births and deaths – these are signals it’s time to review the estate plan you have in place, and to fund or firm up plans considered but which remain incomplete.
If you’ve completed your estate plan, this is a good time to share with family members the location of your key estate-planning documents (electronic and hardcopy versions) and the contact information of all persons holding key roles – your estate-planning attorney, insurance agent, and financial advisor, for example. If you’ve made your Will, while “they” say the freezer is a good place to store it (treating the place you keep the frozen peas as if it were a fireproof safe), your family will almost certainly find it far less stressful if you’ve filed your Will at your county probate court where it can be safely stored for a nominal fee.
A word of warning: if you’ve not started to draft your estate plan, the Thanksgiving dinner table isn’t the best place to assign people to the key roles. Choosing whom to entrust with as your Executor, Power of Attorney Agent, or Trustee is a lot more difficult than choosing who’ll carve the turkey. Selecting someone, however nice, who’s not got the right skill set or temperament for the job can have consequences even worse than that time you let Uncle Bob who’d had one eggnog too many use the electric carving knife. You’re still trying to remove the blood out of the wallpaper. Deciding who will carry out key estate planning roles is a task best done under the guidance of an experienced estate-planning attorney who’ll take the time to get a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the most likely candidates for the job.
Finally, keep in mind that If you try to explore every single aspect of your estate plan on Thanksgiving Day, you’ll never get the dishes washed. But it’s a wonderful time to count your blessings – and to consider how to preserve and transmit them to those you love so that your thankfulness will live on for many Thanksgivings to come.