Why do we avoid estate planning?
This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s kind of why I started this little venture in the first place. Why do we - young people, old people, single people, parents of many children, parents of one - avoid planning for death? And I’m not just talking about making our last will and testament or finalizing our advanced healthcare directive (although that’s all important too!). I’m talking about the larger project of really planning, soup to nuts, how we will be remembered and what our family will be left with at the end of the day: the memories, heirlooms, stories, family history, the things that I believe form the essence of our legacy.
It feels like the coronavirus has given us a moment to confront these questions: take away the weird chaos of our days (mine are mostly spent managing three kids’ Zoom calls and washing dishes) and we are faced with our own mortality in a very real way. It’s beyond scary, but is it enough motivation to do something we’ve pushed aside for so long? It’s been hard for me to confront those old boxes of photos and letters, to ask the important questions of how my kids will remember me, to review the estate documents I know I should look at regularly. And I’m someone who likes to talk about death! So why is it so hard?
No one likes to think about their own death.
Well, let's state the obvious: it’s hard to plan something that takes, as its base assumption, our own non-existence. I’m sure psychologists and philosophers (and many others) would add much more here about the fear of death, but I doubt it would add much to my point. No one thinks, or wants to think, they’re going to die today, tomorrow, or ever. So it follows that planning around death is something that we push to the bottom of our to-do list, if it makes it there at all.
It feels like a chore we can push off indefinitely.
Even if we can get to a rational place about our own inevitable death, planning for it feels like a chore. It’s like taxes, but without the deadline (because we're not going to die, right?). We need to collect a bunch of paperwork and information and hand it over to a buttoned-up professional, who charges an arm and a leg to reorganize it into something incomprehensible that just gets filed away somewhere. Most people - super organizers aside - don’t really enjoy filing and filling out forms. It doesn't feel like we're creating something meaningful; we're just putting something we already know into a different format for someone else to use at some date in the unforeseeable future. Boring and abstract are words that immediately come to mind.
We’re afraid to make mistakes, and worse, hurt feelings.
So I recently took a quiz to find my personal “fear archetype” (thank you Ruth Souckup!). It’s supposed to help identify how and why things get in our way to success. My main archetypes were “procrastinator” and “people pleaser.” As a procrastinator, I put off acting until I have all of the data (correct! I research endlessly and agonize over even the smallest decisions). As a people pleaser (see also "feeler" and "obliger" as coined by Myers-Briggs and Gretchen Rubin, respectively), I worry about my relationships, how people will feel, and if I'll let my loved ones down. So when I think about estate planning, it’s a double-whammy. I feel paralyzed by the what-ifs and terrified by the impact my choices will have on other people, specifically the people who matter most. I don’t want to mess it up. The stakes are high, and the information feels incomplete (because my life isn't over yet!). I think there are a number of other personality traits (avoiders! excuse-makers! pessimists!) that have a similar effect on how we approach end-of-life planning.
Can we think about this process differently?
What if we can reimagine estate planning to counteract these natural human tendencies? Can we make it feel more meaningful, more productive, less scary?
Here’s how I would reframe estate planning:
It’s about your life, not your death. Let’s breath a little legacy into estate planning. Whereas estates wrap up, legacy is something that endures well beyond when those wills become obsolete. Try to take the broadest view of your estate plan, one that is about capturing your life, not just your death, in something that your loved ones understand and can return to.
You are creating something, not reorganizing the past. This is not just about filing your decisions away. If you really start asking the hard questions about your life - how do you want to be remembered, what are your family values, what are the defining moments in your and your life and your family's history - you discover and craft the story of your life. This is a huge, creative endeavor. Engaging in the right kind of legacy planning can even change the way you live now: the choices you make, how you approach your relationships, your work, how you spend your spare time, etc. It's important and exciting work!
It’s about building relationships now, not leaving your loved ones to guess in the future. Do not be paralyzed by the fear that you will hurt people. Use your legacy building to reach out and talk to the people you love most about the things that are important to you. You are nurturing your relationships and giving them the tools to remember you by.
I think if we are able to find ways to associate the work of legacy building with something positive and achievable, we might be a little less likely to push it off for another day.