Boulder Senior Law Day is Saturday, September 23, 2017

Venetian Canal

 

The Boulder County Senior Law Day will take place this Saturday at the Plaza Event Center in Longmont, CO.  Here is their website if you are interested in registering for the event or would like more information.  There will be 20 different presentations on topics ranging from how to serve as a fiduciary or health care agent for another person; the basics of Medicaid and what you need to know; what’s “trending” in elder fraud (presented by Jane Walsh, Deputy DA from the 20th judicial district); special needs planning and many other interesting topics.  I have been asked to present on ethical wills and leaving a meaningful legacy.

I have written several blog posts on this topic, but I find something new to write about each time I return to this topic!  Most of us estate planning attorneys need to have a sharp eye for identifying potential minefields in a client’s choice of beneficiaries.  It goes without saying we must be vigilant to find ways of minimizing conflict and potential conflict among fiduciaries (agents under powers of attorney, trustee, and the like) as well as beneficiaries in assisting a client in putting together a comprehensive estate plan for managing disability or incapacity (using durable powers of attorney) and for post-mortem planning (by using a will and other available tools suited to the client’s situation).

The estate planning documents we draft for clients are legal documents and we lawyers tend to draft them in ways that are free from language regarding the testator’s (the legal term for a person who makes a will) thoughts or feelings about particular persons or things, but some important documents can help fill in the gaps or empty spaces.  One of these is an ethical will.

Another related document is what is known as a “side letter” which is focused more closely on fleshing out and providing the context for a testator’s intent concerning the rationale for distribution in a will or other estate planning document.  These “side letters” are not without risk and they will likely not be effective in swaying contentious beneficiary who holds to the belief that they have been cheated out of a larger share of an estate.

What I will be talking about Saturday are the benefits of drafting an ethical will or legacy letter to “bequeath,” if you will, the intangible legacy and values of a person’s life.  This writing can also greatly benefit the writer of the document to provide an opportunity help establish one’s own meaning of existence and to weave together the pieces of one’s life into something one might call purpose.  In today’s always-on age of constant chatter, busy-ness and noise, such an exercise of reflection can be priceless!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Ethical Wills and “Legacy Letters” – an Overview

denver elder law

Italian Marble

It’s been a few years (3 ½)  since I’ve written on this topic, and a colleague recently asked me to speak on this at an event this fall.   The fact is, I think writing an ethical will is another way of imparting meaning into our lives – whether we are young and healthy and writing to our young children about what we hold dear and hope to carry into their future, or we are old and sick and recording more of a legacy of a life lived.   In my previous blog post, I described five different approaches to writing an ethical will: an explanation; an expectation; an affirmation; an historical document (think genealogy or heirlooms); and a statement of values.

In today’s post, I’m focusing on the last approach – a statement of values.  An ethical will in this context is essentially a document which can serve to identify those values, that “something” to live for, which has sustained the author and given meaning and texture to the tapestry of one’s life.

The ethical will or legacy letter is the big picture view of what can be encompassed in estate planning.  Keep in mind that the majority of Americans die without any estate plan in place.  Many of those folks might simply respond to a question about any need for planning with a retort “I’ll be dead, so I won’t care” – but I think there is some fear lurking behind that otherwise lackadaisical sounding statement. . .

If one chooses to engage in estate planning by executing: powers of attorney which name others to act on our behalf in the event we are unable (which may include a conversation and some direction about how money should be spent for one’s care); a living will to express our end of life health care preferences; and a will which sets forth how our estate will be distributed then  — is it really much of a stretch to go from identifying what you need to live to identify something to live for? I think not!

Here is a link to a website with some touching examples of ethical wills written by a variety of people.   What I am suggesting here is that the ethical will can help us to live life more fully – read: by preparing to die – and as preparation to face the rest of one’s life, with whatever level of fear, exhilaration or trepidation that entails.

So here are some ideas to employ for that statement of values:

Describe who you have been or who you are now in relationship to your family of origin, your family of creation and perhaps your family of choice;

  • Write about those things that you hold most dear, what you are grateful for and perhaps also the things you regret;
  • Describe those principles, rituals, or teachings, etc., which have been important to you and explain why they hold such meaning to you; and
  • Write about aspects of your life and your values that demonstrate the meaning of your life, the experience of that meaning and how you have constructed the meaning(s) over the course of your life.

These are just a few examples of how, in the creative act of putting into words one’s life story, or describing the values one holds dear, one can construct a broader meaning and see connections of the disparate or seemingly disconnected parts of a life in new ways.  The context or impetus for telling one’s story may be significant to the context of the story or perhaps not at all.  Constructing a life story – even if it is only an early part of a life – is an example of how we as human are engaged in the search for meaning.  I have always been fond of Ernest Becker’s term for our species – homo poetica or “man the meaning maker.”

This search for meaning, as well as our attempts to construct and our longing to impart meaning, can be a very useful tool for us at any age.  The ethical will as an example can help us integrate our life’s experiences and help us see the “big picture” of the meaning of our life and the lives of others as well.  It reminds me of Viktor Frankl and his logotherapy, based on “will to meaning.”   Each of us, no matter what is the ease or difficulty we face in our lives, remain free to find the meaning in our own life.  Writing an ethical will can help us construct that meaning.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org