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Creating ‘Good Will’ in estate planning

Elizabeth Arnold writes a comprehensive guide for passing on your emotional and financial legacy. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: Weekend Today

After years working as an estate planning attorney, author Elizabeth Arnold has seen the mess that can be left behind because of a poorly planned will. In her new book “Creating the Good Will,” Arnold teaches readers how to plan for the emotional well-being of surviving family members, rather than how to structure tax-saving schemes.

Grief Gridlock
“Here one moment, gone the next.”
It seems like just yesterday that Dad and I shared what was to become our last time together. On that beautiful autumn day in 1994, I was 28 and my 58-year-old father was seemingly healthy and in the prime of his life. It was my long-awaited first day working for my father after years of practicing law as an estate planning attorney.

That fateful day, Dad had spent the morning walking me around the office and introducing me to the employees. Everyone chuckled when he lightheartedly remarked, “This is Elizabeth; she’ll be here long after I’m gone.” Later at lunch, we conversed about love, life, business, and his estate. Dad’s eyes welled up with tears as he asked me to forgive him for not getting me involved sooner in the business. I took his hand and told him that we had plenty of time left but gently chided him for putting off some pressing issues in his estate plan.

The following morning as I prepared for my second day on the job, starting out with a brisk sprint on the Nordic track, the phone rang. It was Mom. Dad had taken a fall that morning. She had awakened to the love of her life collapsing down the stairs as he got up for a glass of milk. She said, “Don’t worry, but get to the hospital immediately.”

Ever the optimist, entering the emergency room I imagined seeing my father sitting up, sporting a neck brace, and making light of his clumsiness. As I was quickly escorted into a private area, however, I was met with a completely different image. There he was, his body stretched out on a gurney with his beloved curly silver mop on one end and skinny long legs sticking out of an all-too-short hospital gown on the other. As I stepped closer to look into his loving face, I realized his once twinkling blue eyes were completely vacant. 

And just like that, in a heartbeat, Pop was gone. 

What My Dad Really Wanted:
Despite His Will, No One Agreed
Dad and Mom had kept their estate plan in tip-top shape for years. It was a model in tax planning structures. Their plan for the three offspring was to give a third to each child, a simple enough formula on paper but with enough fluid parts and communication blind spots to blow the family apart. I knew what Dad had told me he envisioned the day before he died, but my siblings, in-laws, and mother held onto their own recollections of scattered conversations throughout the years. Although I had a written agreement regarding my new position in the company, family members began to challenge it within hours of my father’s passing. And within days, someone was even questioning my share of the inheritance, wondering if something should be deducted for the expense that went into funding my Ivy League education — despite that our parents would have provided that opportunity for them had they chosen the same path. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But this wasn’t my family talking. It was grief gridlock.

Equally striking was that nothing in the estate plan fully encapsulated my father’s legacy — absent was any mention of his hopes and dreams for us and his values. Unquestionably, having these thoughts explicitly expressed would have helped us more quickly step beyond the bricks and mortar, beyond the tangibles, and beyond the money.

While on the outside our family was the model of good behavior, behind closed doors tensions began escalating that would take years to resolve. The lid was off Pandora’s box. My father’s will had become a lightning rod for our anguish, grief, frustrations, anger, and confusion — a gateway for unfilled emotional needs and unresolved hurts among family members. If my father had witnessed this scene on earth, he would have certainly been deeply disappointed in all of us.

During this difficult period, I found myself returning to two predominate “if only ...” thoughts.

If only my dad had lived long enough to create the unambiguous, loving, and lasting communication he had intended — all of this conflict could have been avoided and our family could have completely focused on celebrating his life and legacy.

If only I had seen this coming.

But, in fact, I had.

Beyond the Stuff:
What Harvard Left Out of the Textbooks
Long before my dad died, I used to drive my law professors nuts asking about what happened inside families when tax-driven estate plans became actualized in real life. Growing up, I had seen too many horror stories among my parents’ friends whose estate plans in action wreaked havoc due to inadequate consideration of the human component when creating them. How many people do you know in your own family and others who don’t share Thanksgiving together, or who don’t talk to each other because so-and-so got X from a will?

In the early 1990s, Harvard Law wouldn’t touch the emotional side of estate planning with a ten-foot pole. Not only are these human issues impossible to quantify, but every situation is different. Helping people navigate this tricky turf requires a completely different skill-set than what law school graduates are typically trained to produce: clear, watertight legal structures that protect assets and transition them to loved ones. Even now, most textbooks and consumer guides on creating wills skim over the human side of estate planning.

While working as an estate attorney and representing feuding families, my experience yet again confirmed how even the best legal structures could destroy families when the human elements weren’t simultaneously addressed. I spent days in a courtroom hearing mothers and sons rip each other to shreds rather than talk to each other about the real issues. I spent hours in my office helping clients resolve disputes over who would get the deceased’s beloved collection of birdhouses while a multimillion-dollar business hung in the balance. As a result, I often put in extra time off the clock with clients and family friends, helping them acquire essential skills and implement strategies that would protect their families in the future from, well, themselves.

Although I had tried my best to forewarn my father of these estate time bombs for years, he kept putting off addressing these emotional issues for a variety of reasons from “not enough time” to “waiting for the kids’ lives to settle down.” Despite my warnings, I felt disempowered to do anything about it because it wasn’t my estate. Worse-case scenario, if something bad did happen, I hoped that our strongly shared values would pull my family through — which, despite years of preventable in-fighting after my father’s death, eventually happened. After all, my parents had raised us as a cohesive and loving unit. Family came first before anything else. We were never treated as children of privilege. We went to public schools, lived in a modest home, worked summer jobs, and were expected to get good grades. My father often reminded us that our family business had succeeded from one generation to the next through nothing more than pure sweat and good luck. And it could all be gone tomorrow.

But most of all, I thought time was on our side. Don’t we all? As it turned out, it wasn’t. 

New Beginnings: Sowing SeedsWhile my family endured some tough times after my father’s death, we eventually made our way to a better place. The tragedy is that our wounds and scars could have been avoided. The blessing is that we were able to achieve family peace in time before my sister tragically died in a small plane crash in Norway in the spring of 2003.

Before long, after leaving the family business, people started to call on me again for estate planning advice. I tinkered with the idea of getting back into law full time, but was drawn instead to another calling: saving families both grief and money by helping them to address the emotional dimension often overlooked in well-intentioned, but misguided, estate plans and last wills prepared by $300-an-hour attorneys. Once I started advising folks again, I found myself quietly focusing on communication blind spots — the perceptions and expectations that can make or break the most ironclad legal documents. And before I knew it, I was showing them how to use the estate planning process to build bridges with loved ones and celebrate their lives.

People quickly embraced my new approach, which I later came to call The Good Will. One that puts the emotional well being of families ahead of clever tax-saving structures. One that celebrates lives more than hard assets. One that strengthens family relationships as much in the here and now as in the hereafter. One that addresses the complicated family structures that are so common in our modern times. One that breathes fresh air into the daunting, technical process of estate planning — turning it ultimately from a dreaded affair into a surprisingly freeing and fulfilling one.

The Good Will is not just created in an attorney’s office. It’s not just created by making sure you’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on legal forms. It’s not just created by jumping through tax loopholes. While no doubt these things are important, creating the Good Will is ultimately about people and what matters most to you and your loved ones.

I often tell others that I started my present company, Sowing Seeds, in a hospital room in Harrisburg on an autumn morning in 1994. My life’s work found me at that moment and influenced me ever since to help others sow the seeds of their legacy by using the estate planning process to celebrate life and create family harmony, not havoc. My legacy has become helping others create theirs.

Looking back now it seems fortuitous that after my father’s death, one of my most cherished mementos became a card that he had handed me on my 18th birthday in which he had simply scribbled, “It’s up to you kid. Pass it on.”

And so with this book — which encapsulates the tools and strategies I have developed and used to help thousands of individuals and families find greater joy and peace — I now pass it on to you, with the hope that you will in turn pass it on to those you love.

Excerpted from “Creating The Good Will — The Most Comprehensive Guide to Both the Financial and Emotional Sides of Passing On Your Legacy,” by Elizabeth Arnold. Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Arnold. All rights reserved. Published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. Used by permission.