June 2, 2011

Hypothetically Speaking


I was recently a guest at the New York Bar Association talk “End of Life, What You Should Know.” The “you” refers to lawyers. During the Q&A an attorney with an established estate practice spoke about how she approaches the creation of a will: “I always talk in the hypothetical.”

She went on to say that she is not trained to be a spiritual or therapeutic counselor, feeling it unnecessary, even counter-productive to approach emotional areas. She suggested that going further than the hypothetical would be unprofessional and even unwelcome. Certainly out of her comfort zone. Heads nodded in agreement; the theoretical death conversation seems to be the standard in law.

For many of us, the creation of a will may be the primary if not only conversation we have with another person about our death, and what will happen after we die. 2007 research indicates that only 55% of adult Americans die with a will. Those who do, discuss it with lawyers as a hypothetical event. It’s not.

Understandably the abstract query helps to cover all possible circumstances. Lawyers cover a lot of territory with:

… If you die tomorrow
… If you die before you retire
… If you die before your child is a legal adult
… If you predecease your spouse/partner
… If your spouse/partner predeceases you
… If your children predecease you

And so it goes. A necessary, but somewhat unwelcome process. Not a lot of fun. For me, anxiety was released when this work is done. But questions arose, beyond the theoretical, “Is this it?” and “Where do we go from here?”

Our son recently presented an alternative approach. Shuffling through his backpack, he handed me a piece of paper, his will. “Keep this for me. We’re all doing one.” His numbers certainly beat the adult stats. He had my attention. Note: Although recent posts involving my kids may indicate otherwise, they are no Pugsley and Wednesday.

It began with a classmate imagining he was going to visit a gorilla and steal his bananas. Another classmate, assessing the outcome, suggested that he needed a will. And so the “imaginary will game” was born. Perhaps it took hold because they were preparing to leave third grade for fourth; a necessary but somewhat unwelcome process. Seems they had a lot of fun.

They left money to their imaginary future spouses, even to an imaginary future ex-wife, to Barney, and to some seedlings under their care. A house was left to “Bob the Builder.” They signed each other’s wills colorfully and with flourish. Their words were funny, irreverent and only slightly sentimental in referencing characters from their early childhood. One signature on my son’s will carried the salutation “Goodbye.”

We are not in third grade. But we can take a cue from the kids: venture outside of the abstract and start imagining our exit. Shift the “if” to “when.” Play with the idea a bit. There’s a gorilla in the room.

Comments (1)

  1. June 4, 2011
    John McIlwain said...

    A lovely note and very wise. I remember writing a letter to my son when he was 10 or so and addressing the envelop to him “If I die.” My wife pointed out the problem that I had not noticed. But that was before I reached 50 and finally wrestled with the inevitable – a gorilla would have been easier and quicker. Now I know it is just matter of time and circumstances and it makes the days far richer and more important and the mystery of the whole life thing so much more mysterious and strange. I actually love living in the mystery and in the inconcievableness of life. And enjoy your bolg very much

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