Each estate planning professional at our company, Thompson & Associates, walks clients through a process that helps them clarify their thinking on several important issues: what they would still like to accomplish in their lifetime, the values that have guided them throughout their lives, and the legacy that they wish to leave to their children and grandchildren. The process usually culminates with clients writing final letters to their loved ones. That’s what usually happens—but not always.
Three years ago I helped with Mr. J and his wife, Sally, on their estate plan. This elderly gentleman was a really tough guy. He was about five feet tall with a short white beard and hands as rough as 60-grit sandpaper. Eighty years of hard work on the farm had taken an obvious toll. While planning with Mr. J had been a real challenge, working with Sally was an absolute joy. She was a petite woman; a farmer’s wife with a heart of pure gold. Recently Mr. J called and asked to meet with me again. Even now, it is hard for me to write about what happened without getting emotional.
Obviously, there were things that he needed to say to his children and to his wife—things that would have never been said if he had died before Sally.
Going through all the steps of our estate planning process, we get to know people pretty well. As he came into our meeting room, it was easy to recognize the sadness in his countenance. He asked if I knew that Sally had passed away. I told him that I had not heard and that I was so very sorry. We sat down to talk, but he was unable speak for a few minutes. We both just sat there silently as he gathered his thoughts and emotions. I noticed some papers that he was rustling in his shaky hands. Finally, he spoke in a familiar, soft voice and explained how he had recently gone to their lockbox to retrieve their documents.
“In the box,” said Mr. J holding up the papers, “I found these.”
He held out the five letters that Sally had written—one to each of their four children and one to him.
This tough, and fiercely independent, farmer began to read aloud the letter that Sally had written to him, halting every few words. You can imagine how emotional that moment was—for him and for me. When Mr. J. finished reading, he took a few moments to gather himself. When he finally spoke, he said:
“I did not want to come to the first and second meetings with you, but Sally made me. Talking with my lawyer over the last week, I found out that you had helped us put together a really good plan. But that is not why I am here. Any (expletive deleted) blue suit could have done that. I am here because you asked us to write those letters to the ones we love. She did, but I refused. I’ve kept copies of the letters she wrote to our children. Each night when I can’t sleep and I am so very lonely, I read these letters that she wrote in her own handwriting. It is the only thing that eases the horrible pain.”
He continued on and eventually said,
“Our kids love their letters, and I recently wrote my own letter to each of them. Last night I wrote my letter to Sally.”
He stood up, stuck out his hand, and said with tearful eyes, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” With that he opened the door and walked out.
Letters to Loved Ones
I am tempted to stop right there—enough said. But I know how meaningful these final letters can be. There is never a moment of your life when you have the opportunity to say something with greater meaning and power than right after your life on this earth has concluded. I also know how hard it can be to get people to write those final letters. Many procrastinate until it is too late, and here are two primary reasons why.
1. Underestimating the Importance
Some balk at writing final letters, stating that they have already said everything that needs to be said. Maybe that’s true; maybe not. People often comment, “My (spouse) and our kids know how much I love them.” That statement usually implies one of two things. It could mean that they have been so loving and openly affectionate with their family and friends that no doubt remains. Hopefully, that is the way it is with you and your loved ones. Even if that’s the case, speaking to your loved ones from beyond the grave has a powerful impact. Putting it in a letter also gives them something tangible to remember you by—an expression of what their lives have meant to you.
On other occasions when people say, “They know that I love them,” it means the very opposite. In actuality, it means, “I’ve rarely, if ever, told them verbally. They should know it by my actions.” My immediate response to those individuals is, “How often and how straightforwardly have you told them?”
My experience is that there is no perfect time and no perfect words other than those that come to mind right now.
Many have difficulty verbally expressing their affections openly because of when, where, or how they were raised. That was definitely Mr. J. It took the death of his wife to break down those hesitations. Obviously, there were things that he needed to say to his children and to his wife—things that would have never been said if he had died before Sally.
2. Overestimating the Importance
There is a second reason that people never get around to writing final letters. It’s not because they underestimate the significance of such a letter; it is that they are all too aware of how meaningful it would be to their loved ones. Consequently, they wait for the perfect moment, the perfect inspiration, and the perfect words. My experience is that there is no perfect time and no perfect words other than those that come to mind right now. Sometimes I ask, “Suppose this afternoon you were going to write such a letter. What would you say?” A tape recorder might spoil the moment, but there are times I wish I had one running. The answers given right then and there could not have been more powerful or appropriate.
More Than Money
If you’ve been in the estate planning business very long, you’ve probably come to realize that there’s more to it than succession planning, wealth transfer, or even the charitable contribution. I hope that all of you who work in planned giving encourage each of your clients or donors to write those final letters to their loved ones. What we do and how we do it can make a very big difference in people’s lives.
Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.