Being Good “Parents” to Our Parents

One of the toughest things in my elder law practice is to get the sons and daughters of an incapacitated parent ready to face this truth:

The kids are now the “parents” to their parents.

Just what does this mean?  Well, for openers, it means that the kids now are the ones responsible for the health and well-being of their parents.  It means that the kids will make decisions for their parents that involve things like “Where will mom or dad live?”  “How (or what) will they eat?” “How much (if any) freedom will mom or dad have to go where they want, when they want, by means of their own choosing.

Being a Parent to one’s own Parent requires a real stretch of thought and a complete reordering of one’s own thoughts about such things.  Just think about it.  You’ve been taught from childhood on up to “listen to your parents,” “honor and obey your father and your mother,” “respect your elders.”  This type of conditioning, ingrained in us for our entire lifetimes, has become second nature.  And now, the declining health, mental horsepower, and energy of a parent may require that we gently put all those teachings about obedience aside in favor of making decisions which will affect and control their lives.

Why must we become our parents’ parents?  Well, if we don’t do it, who will?  And besides, hasn’t the human lifespan become long enough to create a certain balance and fairness.  Think about it.  When we were born, we were totally helpless.  We couldn’t feed ourselves.  We couldn’t even walk.  Who was there to see to it that we learned those lessons, and many more?  That’s right, it was our moms and dads, grandparents, sometimes aunts and uncles who cared for us and made sure that we learned enough so that we could live “out in the wild” on our own?

And now, with parents living long enough to become gradually helpless, doesn’t simple balance and fairness require us to return the favor?

The job—like any job of real value—isn’t always easy.  If you have kids of your own, think back to the times when you ordered them to do (or not do) something. They might have responded with something like, “I hate you.” Now ask yourself, “Would I have changed what I wanted my kid to do (or not do) just because they would he or she wouldn’t like me?” Of course you wouldn’t, because as a parent, you were charged to do what was right by your kid.

Like it or not, the same is gradually becoming true today.

So to each of you who is gradually taking on the task, I wish you all the best in being a Good Parent to your Parents.   To be sure, it’s a thankless job, just as many of the struggles we’ve had in parenting our kids has been thankless, too, but also worthwhile and necessary.

Besides, if not us, then who?

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What’s In a Notary?

Have you noticed that the Internet has turned everybody into an Expert?

Anything that anyone wants to know is right here—right now.  The Entire Body of Collected Knowledge Developed Through the Entire History of Civilization is in the world’s servers, or the Ethernet, or The Cloud, or wherever such things exist.

The Internet Phenomenon has made everyone a bit more savvy and knowledgeable, and that is for the better.  Anyone with a computer can learn a little bit about everything he or she wants.  Just point and click.  However, there is also a danger which comes along with having the World at Your Fingertips.  The old advice that “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing”  still holds true, and especially so in the preparation of wills, trusts, powers of attorney and other  estate planning documents.

I suspect that in preparing “do it yourself” legal documents, laypeople think they’re getting it right, but they’re not really sure, because they’re not lawyers.  So, in an effort to convince anyone who wants to know that the papers they have created, do, in fact, have legal power, many people take one more step to make them look legal.

They go to a Notary Public and have the documents notarized.

And, why not?  After all, there is something official-looking about a notarial imprint and seal, something that shouts out, “I’m important, and I’m legal.”  Two people get together, put some words on a piece of paper, have it notarized and then walk away thinking that they have done something of legal significance.

Not so fast.  Just because something looks legal, doesn’t mean that it is legal.

Forgive me for “shouting”, but everyone who reads these words should know that

NO MAGIC HAPPENS JUST BY HAVING A DOCUMENT NOTARIZED!

A notary public is simply a legally authorized individual who can administer oaths and witness and authenticate documents.   A notary public is someone who will legally vouch for the fact that the person signing a document is, in fact, the person that he or she claims to be.   A notary public simply watches a person sign a document in their presence; checks identification, and then signs and stamps the document with an official “seal”, showing that they have witnessed a signature and verified the ID

In plain English, a Notary is nothing more than a fancy witness.  If a document is not already a proper and legally drafted document, that document won’t take on any legal power just because the parties take it to a Notary to slap a notary seal on it.

So beware, if you are a legal do-it-yourselfer.  A Notarial Seal adds absolutely nothing to a document that wasn’t legal to begin with.

Being a “Dear Abby”

I’ve joined Avvo.  For those of you who aren’t aware, Avvo.com, among other things, is an expert-only Question-and-Answer forum where people can ask legal and health questions of lawyers and doctors, for free.   The lawyers who participate receive online questions from all over the country, and, for the most part, make a sincere effort to provide needed estate planning advice, if only to tell the questioner that they should hire a lawyer to help them.

In answering questions from anonymous members of the general public, I’ve noticed that some of the same problems and misconceptions crop up over and over again.  So, in a sincere effort to help you, my reader who has chosen to find and follow my Blog, I’ve decided to let you in on the most repeated misconceptions in the hope that perhaps a little bit of knowledge here will be a helpful thing.

Without a doubt, the most asked question is this:  With So Much Information Available Online, Can Laypeople Do Their Own Estate Planning By Themselves?

Many people nowadays believe that will writing, will changing and estate planning can be done entirely on a do-it-yourself basis.  But, as many have unfortunately found out, there is much more to this process than “filling in the blanks” on a form and “crossing out and changing” what is not wanted any longer.

I realize that nobody wants to hire a lawyer, especially if one believes that they know enough about what they’re doing (or can get information on the Internet) to be able to do the lawyer’s work themselves, and save themselves legal fees.

When it comes to plumbing, trust me, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.  I’ve tried and failed at enough plumbing repairs in my home to know that I don’t know what I’m doing; that I’ll probably mess up the job; and that I’ll probably need to call a plumber anyway, who will charge me not only to repair the mess I made, but also to do the job the way it should have been done in the first place. If I know enough about plumbing to know that I shouldn’t attempt it, I wonder why people don’t feel the same way about the practice of law?

When people ask me whether it is possible to create a will or a trust by simply pulling a form off the Internet, my answer is always “Yes”!  Yes, it is possible to create a will, a living trust, or other estate planning documents without a lawyer, the same way it is possible to

–build a house without a carpenter;

–repair your faucets without a plumber;

–hunt for your own food without going to a grocery;

–fix your car’s transmission without a mechanic;

–walk across the country without a map or a compass;

–diagnose an illness just by plugging symptoms into an online medical website

A person can do all these things and more, but let me ask you, will your results be any good…and will they hold up?

It’s not only that I make a living as an estate planner that I suggest that nothing can replace good, old fashioned training and experience for getting the job done.

The “Wrong Joe”

One of the many reasons that Estate Planning is so fascinating is that everyone’s life is a Story.  To create the optimal estate plan, it is important—almost essential—to learn That Person’s Story.  Details like where one grew up, how (s)he met their spouse, how did (s)he choose their life’s work, what one’s kids are like—all of these richly unique details help to bring about an Estate Plan which is a true reflection of one’s own values, personality and legacy.

The more stories I’ve come to know, the more that I’m convinced that major, life-defining events sometimes grow from small, minor, random, accidental—and sometime mistaken—happenings.

Here’s an example of Life Happening Out of a Mistake:

The year was 1970.  On a local college campus walked a college sophomore—serious in purpose—focused upon his education—allowing himself some extracurricular time by joining the college concert band.  As his sophomore year progressed, he was occasionally met between classes by an unusually friendly, terribly cute young woman, who always greeted him with a sweet smile and a bright “hello” whenever they passed.  As the term continued, the young woman’s smiles and greetings became invitations to join her and her roommates for coffee and cards in their apartment.

Not quite understanding the reason for the young woman’s exceptional friendliness, but rarely able to resist this unexplained level of feminine attention, the young man finally agreed to meet the young woman and her roommates at their apartment.  Knocking on the door, the young man again was greeted by what had now become the familiar friendly smile, except this time, there were additional words:

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” said the Smiler, whereupon she introduced the young man to another woman, who, after greeting and taking one look at the young man, dropped her face on the floor with disappointment.   Confusion and nervous discomfort became palpable among the three (along with some whispering between the two women), until the Smiler took the young man aside to apologize:

“I’m so sorry.   My disappointed roommate here had asked me to invite a boy named Joe from the concert band for coffee and cards, because she thought he was cute and was too afraid to invite him over herself.  She just told me that the boy she wanted to meet was Another Joe from the band and not you…I’m so sorry.

Rather than send the young man away, the Smiler tried to make a thoroughly uncomfortable situation a bit better by inviting “Joe” in, pouring him some coffee and just sitting and talking.  These two college sophomores slowly but gradually learned that they really liked each other, and eventually the young man summoned enough courage to ask the Smiler on a date.

That date, October 23, 1970, was the first date between the woman who eventually became my wife, and me.

It’s amazing that one evening of being “the Wrong Joe” has led to a friendship of 42 years, a marriage of almost 37 years, a law practice of 26 years and a family with two adult, college educated children—and everything in between— but that’s how random life is, sometimes.

Speaking just for myself, being “The Wrong Joe” was The Best Mistake that Marianne Flood ever made.

It’s Almost Ice Cream Social Time

Now with the hot summer days hard upon us, Holly, who is my good right arm, reminds me that it’s time in our annual planning cycle to start thinking about our Annual Ice Cream Social.

Just like the First Robin of Spring, The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, our firm’s Ice Cream Social has become an essential part of the rhythm of our year.  This year will be our Seventh Annual.  Before long, the invitations will go out to all of our clients and their friends.  Beginning as a modest event, it has grown and grown through the years.  Last year we had 85 guests.  We’re hoping for 100 this year.

If you’ve followed this Blog over the past months, it’s usually about this point where you’re asking yourself, “Why does this have anything whatsoever to do with Estate Planning?”  Again, the answer is quite simple: 

Estate Planning is more than the creation of documents that identify who gets what when you die.  It’s so much more.  It’s about family, connection, relationships, growth and change.  In addition, there’s so little sense of community and human contact in this “cyber age” that it’s invigorating and renewing just to see our clients, shake their hands and perhaps give them a big hug for no other reason than to celebrate the fact that we’ve all made it safely through another year.

And for us, the Ice Cream Social is an opportunity for us to show our gratitude to the most important people in our professional life:  our clients.  Beyond enabling us to make a living, our clients have given us the opportunity to help and serve them, and for someone who decided many years ago to go to law school so that he could “make a difference to people”, this means more than I can say.

So, enjoy your summer.  Somewhere during the Dog Days, you will get your invitation, or perhaps you will be invited by one of our longtime friends.

And if you’d like an invitation to an evening of fun, laughter, door prizes (we gave out Wawa gift cards last year), and all the ice cream with traditional and exotic toppings that you can eat, I know a sure fire way to get one:

Become one of our clients.

 

 

Hospice, Grief and Estate Planning

When my Dad died eleven years ago, his passing was assisted by hospice nurses.  For you who don’t already know, as described in the Princeton Review, hospice nurses perform many traditional nursing duties such as observing, assessing, and recording symptoms, and they still work closely with physicians, administer medications, and provide emotional support to the terminally ill.   The nurses who assisted my dad were extraordinarily gentle, caring, compassionate souls who really took the mystery and fear out of death.

After my Dad died, my family became so involved with the details of planning his funeral that we didn’t look back at his final hours and minutes.  After all, there were relatives to call, arrangements to be made, and a dozen decisions awaiting us, as those of you who have planned a funeral for a loved one know very well.

At the viewing, I never expected to see the hospice nurses, but there they were, offering hugs and sympathy.  I had mistakenly thought that their job was over upon my dad’s passing, so it had not occurred to me that these wonderful people had returned to assist my family with our grief.

Estate planners should be much like hospice nurses—present not just to the sick and dying, but also to their families.  Grief has nothing to do with the law, but everything to do with people.  To be absolutely certain of this fact, I just Googled “Grief and the Law” and was directed to a recent Law and Order episode.  Any estate planning attorney worth his or her salt will recognize that we serve the entire person and not solely his or her legal matters.  Helping families with their grief and assisting them with their loss is as much a part of healing as the details of settling an estate or administering a trust.  It’s normal, natural, and necessary.

So, in the event that one of your loved ones was a client of mine, please don’t be surprised when you see me at the viewing or church.  For certain, I’m there to honor the memory and life of the departed—just as you are.  But I’m also there to help you grieve, because I care.

It’s only the right and natural thing to do.

Free Consultations and “Test Drives”

We’ve all heard that old saying that “time is money.” While we can all pay lip service to that old chunk of wisdom, isn’t it really more true that time is more about life than it is about money?

Where am I going with this thought?  Lately, I’ve run into more than a few lawyers who are surprised that I do not charge a fee for an initial consultation. After all, “a lawyer’s time and his advice are his stock in trade,” or so said Abraham Lincoln.  So why should I give away my time?

Actually, the practice of offering a free consultation has something in it for both the lawyer and the client, especially in the field of estate practice.   Let’s talk about you, the consumer/client/prospective client first.  You have the absolute right to be comfortable with the attorney you’re interviewing.  In fact, if the comfort level isn’t there, that relationship, in all likelihood, won’t be a very good one. So much of that comfort has to do with your instincts, and your sense of the “vibe” that the attorney gives off.  So let’s say that you go into an attorney’s office and, right from the start, you just don’t like the guy (and, I’m using “guy” here as gender neutral).  He is pompous, overbearing, uses a lot of legalese instead of plain English, he talks down to you, and, perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t listen to you.  When I say “listen”, I mean that he does not give you every bit of his caring, undivided attention in a sincere effort to understand you and your situation.  You feel lousy and dissatisfied after the meeting, and then, to compound your feeling of misery, he asks you for a check for the lousy time you just had.  What good has come of that use of your time and your money?

Now, let’s look at the free consultation from the lawyer’s point of view.  Estate planning is an intensely personal and complex enterprise.  During the course of the relationship, decisions will be made about a client’s health, his family and everything he (or she) owns.  The legal documents which are produced from that attorney-client relationship should represent the absolute best of that client’s intentions about his health, family and anything else that is important to him.  For such a conversation to take place there has to be the right “fit” between attorney and client.  And the attorney also needs to have an opportunity to see if that “fit” can be there before money changes hands and legal representation agreements are signed.

A free consultation is like a “test drive” when you’re buying a car.  The car may look nice on the street, and your friends who own one like it may say great things about it, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether the car feels right to you when your hands are on the wheel.

You’ve never paid a dealership for a test drive, and I can tell you for sure that estate planning is far more important to your life than owning a car. If I’ve done my job right, you’ll leave my office when your will, trust and related documents are signed with a feeling of satisfaction and peace of mind that you’ve faced and decided issues which impact upon your family, health, and everything you own.

Is there anything more important to you in this life than your family, health and everything you own?