Category: Estate Planning

King Lear Feature Image

King Lear’s Tragedy Can Teach Us About Estate Planning

You Won’t Always Be Master of Your Kingdom

When Shakespeare’s King Lear opens, Lear is seated in his castle, resplendent in his power and glory. He is the master of a kingdom.  His will is law.  He wants to retire in peace, with the knowledge that he has implemented a thoughtful estate plan that divides his kingdom among his three devoted and loving daughters.

He has no worries about probate or estate taxes.  He proclaims:

Give me the map there.  Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.  Our son of Cornwall,
And you our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.

(, Act I, Sc. 1, Lines 35-43.)

What could be better or wiser?  Lear’s plan should have enhanced his retirement and avoided post-death disputes among his daughters.  The result, however, was betrayal, madness, war and death.

Absolute Power Can Disappear Overnight

Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy reminds us that absolute power can disappear overnight, that human beings can break seemingly-binding agreements, and that the new generation does not always follow the ways of the old.  We are fools on the heath if we believe that an estate plan that ignores the human beings involved will stand the test of time.  Lear’s plan lasted just a few months.

Since it is a tragedy, King Lear magnifies humanity’s many weaknesses.  Even though we know that most families are not like Lear’s family and that many estate plans work well, Shakespeare’s dark vision suggests:

Keep your eyes open.

The daughter who tells you “I love you more than worlds can leave the matter,” may not love you at all.  The daughter who confesses, “Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all,” may be the daughter who really loves you.

Be willing to listen to honest advice.

If someone you have listened to says, “I tell thee thou dost evil,” don’t abruptly exile him from your kingdom.

Above all, be aware of the role of power in human relationships.

Lear divided his kingdom and his crown.  Two of his daughters agreed that they would let him visit their castles periodically with his knights.  However, when his knights started partying in the castles, his daughters broke their agreements and threw Lear out.

He wandered on the heath accompanied by his fool.  He had no power and never regained it.  The members of the younger generation who took his kingdom over exiled him and began implementing their own agendas in the kingdom they had received just months earlier.

Few characters in King Lear portray redeeming human values.  All of life is not King Lear, and many of us have loving and trustworthy familiesHowever, Shakespeare’s undoubted ability to artistically illustrate the truths of human relationships clearly shows that retirement and estate planning are not limited to the technical issues of hoped-for easy living, avoiding disputes and avoiding taxes.

All retirement and estate plans need to be created with a clear vision of the human beings who are intended to be benefitted by them, and the human beings who will be charged with implementing them.

A bad trustee can ruin a good trust.  A good trustee can save a bad trust.

Consider King Lear. 

Can a trust designed to last more than 100 years really be a good idea?  Lear’s attempt to impose his patriarchal design on his daughters failed.  A perpetual trust may be “the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal control . . . .”  (“A Critical Research Agenda For Wills, Trusts, and Estates,” 49 Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Journal, No. 2, Fall 2014.)

King Lear tells us that, in the end, it is not clear that the patriarch has much control.

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Three Reasons You Need an Estate Plan

Many people have the view that estate planning is mostly for high net worth individuals who require complicated estate tax planning.  However, there are many important reasons to do an estate plan other than tax planning, and these reasons apply to everyone, no matter the size of your estate.  Here are three reasons to consider doing an estate plan even if estate taxes are not your primary concern:

1. Planning for Incapacity

At some point in life, whether due to age, illness, injury, or other health conditions, many of us will become unable to independently manage our own finances.  If you become unable to manage your own finances, the agent you select in your estate plan can step in to make sure your bills continue to be paid and that your finances continue to be managed to provide for your financial needs.  Preparing an estate plan beforehand allows you to carefully choose people you trust to manage your property if you are no longer able to do so, and having the proper estate plan documents in place will give your agents the authority to act on your behalf quickly to provide for your needs without lengthy delays and in most cases without court involvement.

Planning for incapacity also involves planning for your health care in addition to your finances.  Preparing an estate plan gives you the opportunity to express your wishes relating to the treatment and care you would like to receive and allows you to choose people you trust to make important decisions relating to your health care, particularly difficult end of life decisions, if you are not able to do so yourself.

2. Nominate Guardians for Minor Children

If you have children under age 18, another important reason to do an estate plan is to nominate the legal guardians of your minor children.  For many parents, it is difficult to decide who will be responsible for raising and caring for their children after they are gone.  Nominating a guardian in your estate plan will give you assurance that the person you choose will be the person appointed as guardian of your children by the court.

3. Avoid Family Conflict

Dividing a bank account equally among several people is usually a matter of simple math, and there is not much reason to disagree as long as everyone gets the same amount.  However, it can be difficult for family members to agree when deciding who is to receive, for example, great-great-great-great-grandmother’s gold ring or the antique rocking chair that has been in the family for generations when there is only one of the item and several people interested in owning it.  Because of the high sentimental value these items sometimes have, deciding you will own it can become the source of deep family conflict.  The same principle applies to larger or more valuable items, such as the family home or other valuable real estate, where dividing it among several people might not be possible or practical.

Preparing an estate plan gives you the opportunity to specifically designate how you want your property distributed.  With a clear direction in your estate plan as to which family members should receive the property you specify, you can help avoid or reduce the possibility of a conflict over the distribution of your property among your family members after your death.

Depending on our circumstances and stage in life, some of the reasons discussed in this article will be more important or relevant to us than others.  These issues affect us and our families on a more personal level, and at some point most of us will be affected by one or more of the issues mentioned here no matter how much property we own or the value of your assets.  By preparing an estate plan before these issues arise, we can have confidence that that they will be managed effectively and efficiently.

Grandmother and Keyboard

Is Your Grandmother On Facebook?

Young people aren’t the only ones using social media.

People of all ages are using social media to share information, build and maintain relationships, and keep in touch with family and friends, primarily through sharing digital photos and videos.  Many people have also created music or book collections that are entirely digital.  These collections may contain thousands of dollars’ worth of books and music, but they can only be accessed digitally.

The exact means of access may be different depending on the specific type of media, but one thing they have in common is that access usually requires a login or password.

What is also common is that, depending on the media provider, getting access to these items after the death of the account owner can be difficult or impossible.

Family members are often anxious about receiving photos, home videos, journals, music and books of a deceased person, but find that the means for obtaining this information is difficult at best.  The laws affecting the rights to these digital assets are having difficulty keeping up with the advances in technology and the development of social media.

It is clear that digital assets and social media are ever evolving.

As estate planners, we can provide a valuable service to our clients by helping to guide them in arranging for the transfer of these important digital assets.  However, until the laws affecting these assets and the policies of the media providers becomes more stabilized and established, finding good resources to keep updated and informed as these issues develop is especially important to be able to properly advise clients.

The Digital Beyond is one helpful resource in this area. The “Legal” tab is chalk full of helpful articles and information for the “digital afterlife.” A good estate planner should be able to assist their clients with tangible assets, and navigate the waters of digital assets.