The late Victor Frankl, a social psychotherapist, discovered his vocation while a prisoner in Auschwitz. He saw how difficult it was to sustain the will to live. Those who lost it, died. He took it as his mission to give people back the will to live. He would talk to them to discover whether they had an unfulfilled dream or a task to complete. Once he found it, he was able to give them a reason to survive. Something was calling to them from the future, and this was sometimes enough to give them the inner strength to keep going. After the war he founded a new school of psychotherapy – he called it Logotherapy – based on what he called “Man’s search for meaning,” the power of which he saw in Auschwitz.
Preparing an estate plan can, on its surface, become a scary exercise in confronting how your loved ones will fare after your death. Instead, if you dig deeper, you can find your own truth – that which gives you meaning to live, as well as the destinies that your loved ones seek.
We start with you. What is your truth? Here I’m not speaking of truth in the cognitive sense – scientific, metaphysical, artistic – what are the facts? What is ultimately real? Rather, what is your truth in the existential sense – who are you? How do you describe yourself? To what destiny were you called? How are you laying the foundation of your legacy?
Creating your estate plan can and should be more than an exercise of parceling out your assets amongst loved ones. It can instead become an internal reckoning, reviewing the chapters of your life. Looking back, you notice the turning points, which often were times of personal challenges that formed who you are.
What lessons have you learned that you would like to instill? At some point during your development, you may have wanted to emulate someone you knew, or someone you saw on television or read about. As time progressed, however, you discovered that you can’t be someone else. You have your strengths, your weaknesses, which you long ago identified and were able to get the most out of. This added to your success — what you will one day leave behind asset-wise. But how do you bequeath something more important than money or property?
How do you impart the lessons you lived?
This, in effect, is your blessing. Your God-given talent that molded you through the years. The challenge, of course, is that you may want to make things easier for your children and grandchildren than they were for you – which in effect, could rob them of the very experiences that made you who you are!
How do you incorporate that into your estate plan? You can’t force experiences on your progeny, of course. Some believe incentive trusts are the answer. Fearful that money or property will rob loved ones of ambition, incentive trusts are designed to “match” distributions to a beneficiary’s earned income. If the beneficiary earned $30,000 last year, she could receive distributions equaling that amount this year. If she earned more, she may receive more. This gives the beneficiary strong incentive to earn as much money as possible.
But is that the answer? Unfortunately, incentive trusts fail to account for the schoolteacher who inspires her students to do great things. She may not earn one-tenth the amount her neurosurgeon sibling earns, but does this mean she won’t be entitled to her inheritance share? Doesn’t an incentive trust skew too far into the material world and not enough toward rewarding character?
Our children are called to their own destinies. What we don’t want is for our estate plan to thwart the person they will one day become. Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffet’s answers involve pledging most of their net worth to charities and private foundations. You and I may have a different idea, yet we don’t want to obstruct our issues’ God-given blessings.
Perhaps the way to resolve this conflict is to return to Victor Frankl. He discovered that by identifying someone’s bigger future he could instill the will to survive horrifying atrocities. What’s your bigger future? What bigger futures await your children and grandchildren? What are their callings, their dreams? How might your estate plan serve to accomplish those dreams? Once you’ve identified those aspirations, you may design a plan that maximizes your loved one’s strengths and helps them achieve their highest and best callings.
© Craig R. Hersch, 2023. Learn more at floridaestateplanning.com