A Sad Story

We recently met with a man whose outlook on life saddened us. He is in his 80s, and his three children are in their 50s. They each face significant challenges in life, some due to their own choices, others due to the cards they have been dealt. One has married three times and is divorcing again. Another has mental health and addiction issues and has estranged himself from the family. The third has acquired an enormous amount of debt because of bad money habits.
As we spoke with their father, we saw that their pain is also his pain. He grieves the situations in their lives. Any parent could relate. He said things like, “I don’t know what else I could have done for them”. He referred again and again to how he had raised them. He and his wife did what they thought was best. They sent them to a private school, ensured they had full rides to college, pushed them to reach their potential, and tried to support them. But, “I guess I didn’t do enough”, he said.
Now, as an aging widower, he is trying to figure out how to help them with the assets he will leave behind. He has a lot of money, and he hopes to use it to help patch some of the holes in their lives. He has a genuine heart. But, we tried to break to him he has the wrong perspective.

You Cannot Meet Relational Needs with Money

Our friend (we’ll call him William) is not alone in his thinking. Many, many people we meet with think they can fix broken relationships and meet emotional needs by giving people money.
But, while a financial inheritance can be a nice gift and a gesture of goodwill toward his children, their real needs are beyond what money can mend.  Money won’t make his oldest son capable of healthy relationships. It is likely to feed the addictions of his middle son. And giving a large sum of money to his fiscally irresponsible daughter would be like giving alcohol to an alcoholic.
As an estate planning attorney, I watch family after family go through this process. Money is not the answer. This is one reason that traditional estate planning doesn’t work for a lot of people. It focuses too much on money when it should focus on relationships.

What to Do Instead – Relational Estate Planning

I advocate for a way of estate planning that starts with your closest relationships instead of starting with your assets. Don’t get me wrong, this philosophy does address what to do with your money, in fact, how you distribute your assets becomes more important than ever. But money should be used as a tool to reach more important goals.
There are ways you can use your money to help your children without dumping it in their laps all at once if that would be unhealthy for them. But for the sake of this article, let me tell you about the kind of inheritance I have seen benefit children most.

The Inheritance Your Children Need

On a surface level, your kids might need some money. But that pales in comparison to their deeper, truer needs.
Parents, your kids need to know you loved them. They need to know you valued them. They need advice to carry with them once you’re gone. They need to know your values and beliefs. They need the family stories that shouldn’t die with you, the ones that should continue for generations. They need to understand where they come from, which in turn will strengthen their understanding of who they are.
Money might help someone build a house, but values, encouragement, and ideals help build a life.
If your kids are struggling, like William’s, you cannot fix their problems for them. But you can leave them a legacy of love and direction to hold on to as they navigate life. If your kids are doing well, leaving them an inheritance of morals, beliefs, and love will only strengthen and spur them on more.
We all know that relationships are more important than money. So when we are planning for the end of our lives, why is it that we focus on dollars and cents? It is a commodity that will be spent and gone. But the currency of love, kindness, moral guidance, vision, and values, is immortal and life-giving. And it can never be given too freely.

How To Do It

One way we encourage people to leave this kind of inheritance is by creating an Ethical Will. Ethical Wills are a non-legal document you create to record and pass on your deepest values, beliefs, and guiding principles, along with any last words you want to leave with your children. To learn more about the history of Ethical Wills and what information they include, read the article below:

Then, start planning how you will create yours. You can download our Ethical Will How-To Guide for help, or email us at Josh@relational.law. We would love to chat about your Ethical Will and share with you how we have created them for our own families.
Disclaimer: The name and details of William’s story have been changed to protect his privacy and uphold client confidentiality. The information you obtain in this post is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. This blog shares general best practices when navigating Virginia or West Virginia law, but you should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.
Joshua E. Hummer, Esq. is the founder of Relational Estate and Elder Law, and he has been a practicing attorney for over 15 years. While experienced in many parts of the law, Josh specializes in estate planning, estate administration, and elder law. He is licensed in both Virginia and West Virginia. Josh’s passion lies in helping people gain peace of mind about the future through holistic legal planning. When he isn’t meeting with clients or crafting legal documents, Josh enjoys spending time with his lovely wife, Jill, and their four vibrant children.