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Estate Planning Becomes Party Planning

By August 8, 2014



Sometimes the hardest conversations and choices we make as parents can be the ones we feel best about and maybe even celebrate. Last summer we went through the first of many conversations about estate planning. And it was great.

We were sitting at an Indian buffet. To paraphrase, Adam said something like, “It can take on an almost celebratory feel.”

An almost celebratory feel. I could get behind that.

I remember asking my mom where we, meaning my sister and me, would go if something happened to her and my dad. We would go where I thought we would go, to an aunt whose home was like our second home and who made us feel like her own already. I don’t remember how old I was but I’d hazard a guess at 4th or 5th grade.

When we, meaning Brett and me, moved in together and eventually married, we did all the stuff you can do easily and online. Made one another our emergency contacts. Made one another beneficiaries of things and stuff. As a teacher and a know-it-all, I had long wondered what the hell took people so long when they had kids. Why didn’t people, like, just have their wills done already?

And then we had a kid.

When she was a newborn(ish) we sent a letter to my sister asking her to act as guardian because clearly we were about to start AND complete the process. I was all over everything like the amazing new mom I knew I’d be.

And she turned one. And then two. And we’d talk about it every once in a while. Inertia is a powerful thing.

And then a few months ago, our dear friend Adam Salzman (partner to SpitfireMom Jill) started a law firm focused on estate planning.

You know when you can’t really ignore the universe anymore? The only person who would be closer to us would be either Brett or me opening a law firm. I sheepishly mentioned to Adam that we, you know, kind of still needed to do this.

We filled out some paperwork on our assets and answered a questionnaire. We met, first at our house and then at an Indian restaurant to nosh and talk.

The process was so much easier than I thought because we worked with someone who took the time to listen and who knows the law.

The process was so much more important than I thought. I hadn’t known much about probate courts and the bogged-downed-ness if wishes and plans weren’t explicitly mapped out.

Adam wasn’t just interested in completing our will. He was interested in us understanding what we were doing. I assumed we’d sign things with the same “Um, ok” feeling we had when we did and redid our mortgage…that things would be pointed at and glossed over. Nope. Not this time.

As a couple, we had already discussed guardianship so it wasn’t wrought with all-family Thanksgiving debates about Lo’s future. Thinking about the logistics of time and geography and our wishes and her interests, talking about those frankly and honestly and without blame or future blame, and mapping it out before we sat down was a smart step. It can be impossibly hard, I realize that. I can say, though, that no hard conversation is ever made easier by just not having it.

It is, also, an incredibly hard thing to think about someone else raising this little person we love so so much that we can’t wait to see what she does tomorrow, let alone in 15 years.

It’s also an incredibly powerful thing. It gave time and space for us to discuss what we want for her in broader and longer terms, in ways far more concrete than the wistful conversations we had when I was newly pregnant. It was beautiful to hear her dad talk in ways that showed what a wonderful father he is, even as we wrapped our collective head around our potential absence. It was good to affirm our initial thoughts about guardianship. They were still accurate and felt right. It was important to do.

Because of those conversations and ones we had in our consultation, Adam helped us craft two provisions specific to our family (not that we’re inventing any wheels here folks, just sharing what we thought about).

First, we asked for specific gifts to be set aside for any children who would become Lo’s de facto siblings, should someone else raise her. In all instances of her care we mapped out, she’d become the third and youngest kiddo for a family to care for. To honor the love we know those other kiddos would give her, we wanted to set aside something as a thank you. We think so much of the children of her potential guardians and they factored into our decisions. Our choices impacted them, too. These young people? They’d rock as big brothers and sisters to our little Lo.

Second, we wanted to empower her guardians to make her world interesting. We want so badly for her to see things and try things and do things. We’d never want a guardian to feel crippled by concern that they are offending us by spending “our” money. We wouldn’t have picked the people we picked if we thought their lack of discretion would be an issue. If anything, we want to empower them to think bigger. If that means using some of the money to fly the whole family somewhere or to send Lo to some awesome camp I can’t even fathom? We think that’s a wonderful honoring of us. Go. Do. Please.

Adam crafted a smart, sound, thoughtful estate plan. I exhaled about as deeply as I ever have. For so many moments as a mom I feel doubt or second guess my choices. The blogs and the articles make questioning nearly everything an automatic part of motherhood.

This, this legal and non-huggy thing, was something I could be completely confident and happy about. I rocked motherhood in that moment.

And so, when it came time to finalize the will, it felt like a thing to celebrate. To celebrate the couple we are, the family we have, the people around us who we know would rally around Lo if we were gone. The people who rally around her now. We wanted to cheers as we checked off this thing that we had meant to get done and had, really, been downgraded in the family triage till the universe kicked us in the pants.

We needed three witnesses. Our neighborhood playgroup, so important to us as parents, was summoned. Could a few of them come over for a quick thing? I’d make it worth their time. I’d make it celebratory.

I got some prosecco and I bought a cake. I had intended to bake…perhaps something with mint so I could riff on “last will and testament” but the kid wanted to go to the park. Since we are doing all this for her and her future happiness, it seemed a bit silly to deny her present happiness when a Whole Foods vanilla with vanilla 5″ cake is so damn good anyway. (Seriously, they are good. They have a lemon one too. Also v. good)

And you know what? We had four witnesses. One who biked over simply because he said he knew if it was at our house it was going to be fun. Yes, our will signing was fun.


Surely, you say, I must realize this is a topic fraught with complexity and layers and messiness for many individuals and couples. Grandparents and aunts and blended families and having kids younger or older or not at all. Pets. People plan for pets! You’re right. I do realize. I don’t mean to be flippant or braggy. We have one kid. It makes things easier. We agreed about guardianship. That made things easier. Our estate attorney knows our family history. Man, did that make things easier.

Instead of saying “But it is SO EASY,” I just want to encourage the start. And the second step. Whether it’s a “Hey, we should talk about this.” or a “Hmm, we need to update that bad boy now that we are so wildly successful.” or a whatever it is. Hard conversations and hard things are usually not made any easier by endlessly delaying their start. We triaged much of our life for two years and thankfully they were two years when Brett & I stayed relatively healthy and earthbound. Estate planning is one of those things that if you don’t do and suddenly need, you’re kind of in a jam.

And, however messy it gets, it has an end point, and I don’t mean someone’s death, though this is certainly all about the end of my mortal days. I mean the end point of the process. At some point the decisions are made, the document is drafted, and that sweet relief IS cause for a lil’ celebrating.

We signed and then we toasted (for reals, no sip was had before those beasts were signed). We ate cake and told stories and had another glass. Because here’s the thing. This is an incredible thing we’ve got. This life. With this kid and these friends. And as we plan for a time we might not be here for, you can be damn sure I’m going to enjoy the time I’ve got.

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