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The emotional side of estate planning

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We do ourselves a disservice when we act as if estate planning is just an objective task on the to-do list, one that maybe even makes it to the status of New Year resolution.

If estate planning was free of emotions, we wouldn’t get it wrong so often.

It took me a long time to connect the dots between estate planning and psychotherapy. When I started my studies at the Toronto Institute of Relational Psychotherapy in 2013, I was busy expanding the bakery and psychotherapy training mostly seemed like an interesting side pursuit.

My legal and financial services careers were firmly in the past.

I knew that copies of The 50 Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes still sold – and kind friends would mention re-reading it when they refreshed their estate planning- but that was the extent of my thinking about it.

Then the pandemic hit, the bakery closed and in the empty spaces of those days, I decided to read the book again. I was floored: its tone was so chipper and upbeat, its advice so certain! I loved the confidence of the “Tips to Take Away” like those in Mistake 7, Placing too much trust in your delegated financial decision maker.

At the end of that chapter, I wrote,

“Safeguards to prevent your money being used in an inappropriate or even fraudulent manner include: […] communicating early and often among your close circle of friends and family about your plans and intentions.”

Reading this, I cringed a little: yes, the enthusiastic advice about communication is sound but what was missing was an acknowledgement that what is wise and what we can actually do are often very different things. I realized that when we only see signing a will and power of attorney as tasks – legal processes disconnected from our mortality – we leave out the entire emotional side of estate planning, such as how very hard it is to contemplate not being here with all the people we love, or how little we want to talk about some of the topics that need discussing.

In an episode of the popular podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things”, the hosts speak with their guest, the co-creator of Schitt’s Creek, Dan Levy, about mourning the death of a loved one as a portal into exploring what really matters in life, and that this portal of mourning is only open for a time before – like all portals – it closes.

I’ve come to believe that estate planning, as prosaic as we may view it, is also a portal we can choose to use for reflecting on  what matters most and then to abide by those values in both our own estate planning and in our involvement with others’ estates.

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