A Sad Story

My team and I 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 have faced significant challenges in life, some due to their own choices, others due to the cards they have been dealt. One has been married three times and is divorcing again. Another has mental health and addiction issues and intermittently estranges 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 kept saying things like, “I don’t know what else I could have done for them”. He continually referred to how he had raised them. He and his wife had done all they thought was best – they sent them to a private school, ensured they had full rides to college, pushed them to reach their potential, etc. But, “I guess I didn’t do enough”, he said repeatedly.

Now, as he faces his elderly years, 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 wants to divide it amongst them to help patch some of the holes in their lives.

He has a genuine heart. But, as we tried to gently break to him, he has the wrong perspective.

Relational Needs Cannot Be Met with Money

Our friend (we’ll call him William) has fallen into a line of thinking that many people do. He thinks he can fix broken relationships and meet emotional needs by giving people money.

But the thing is, while money might be a nice gift and a gesture of goodwill toward his children, their real needs are beyond what handing them a large sum of 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.

Hear me loud and clear: As an estate planning specialist, 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. It focuses 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 is just a tool to accomplishing more important goals.

(Related Article: What Is Relational Estate Planning?)

In another post, I’ll discuss the different ways you can help your loved ones with your money without dumping it in their laps all at once if that would be unhealthy for them. But for the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on what your kids need from you besides money.

What Your Kids Actually Need

On a surface level, your kids might need some money – okay, fine. 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 be passed on 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 look 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. The currency of love, kindness, moral guidance, vision, and values, however, is immortal and life-changing, and can never be given too freely.

How To Do It

Practically speaking, we encourage people to leave this kind of legacy by creating an Ethical Will, which is a record of your deepest values, beliefs, and guiding principles, along with any last words you want to leave to your loved ones.

To learn more about the history of Ethical Wills and what information they include, read the article below:

Ethical Wills: The Most Important Part of any Estate Plan

Then start planning how you will create yours. You can download our Ethical Will How-To Guide for help or email me at jhummer@jehlaw.net. I would love to chat about your Ethical Will and share with you how I approached creating one for my children.


Joshua E. Hummer, Esq. is a licensed attorney who has been admitted in both Virginia and West Virginia. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and has been practicing law in Winchester for over 15 years. While experienced in many parts of the law, Josh specializes in estate planning and estate administration, elder care, and business law.

Disclaimer: The name and details of William’s story have been changed to protect his privacy and uphold client confidentiality.

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