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This column begins with a slight apology. My mistake. I think I got it backwards. Back in December, I wrote a column naming 7 Ways to Plan and Prepare Your Legacy in 2023. What did not occur to me was that many many people are blocked when it comes to planning their life and legacy.
Recently I read the results of Caring.com’s study of 2600 Americans. This study revealed that only 33% of Americans have a will or trust: “When asked why they don’t have a will, 1 out of 3 respondents believes they don’t have enough assets to leave behind.”
What obstacles are you facing when it comes to planning your life and legacy? Hit reply, and your answer will come straight to me, or share in the comments, because someone might have a suggestion.
Believing we don’t have enough assets to need a plan is not the only obstacle to making a life and legacy plan. A casual scroll through internet articles and poll of friends revealed that people face all sorts of obstacles in planning their lives and legacies. In this month’s column, I’ll share seven of these obstacles and some strategies for overcoming them.
1. People believe they don’t have enough assets to need a plan.
As we’ve already mentioned, the Caring.com study revealed that people don’t create wills because they don’t think they have enough assets to need one. People hear the phrase “estate planning” and conclude, “I don’t have an estate,” so they do no planning. Additionally, some people feel shame over their lack of assets or their debt.
There are practical and biblical reasons to plan. One estate lawyer shared some “horror stories” he has experienced in his practice. In one instance, a couple had been married for thirty-five years. “[The] wife passed away in California without a will or trust, which meant court filings and probate, just to get him named as the rightful sole beneficiary of her assets. It took us quite a bit of legwork to get his wife’s assets transferred into his name, even once the court approved it.”Practically, planning ahead will save our families expense and conflict and unnecessary confusion in a time of grief.From a biblical perspective, all of our possessions have been generously given by God for us to steward well (See James 1:17; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11). Expressing our wishes clearly about distribution of any assets we have is a way to steward faithfully the gifts God has given us.
2. People fear death and/or refuse to face mortality.
Law professor Reid Press Weisbord offered a simple explanation for why people procrastinate legacy planning, “No one likes to think about their death.”
It is natural to be afraid of death, because death is one of the devastating consequences of the Fall (See Genesis 2:16; Romans 5:12). My mother had always been very afraid of death because her mother had died when my mother was still young. And yet, after realizing that she would be in the joyous presence of Christ once she died, she faced her mortality with hope. She decided to do the hard work of preparing her legacy as a way to bless her family after her death.
3. Legacy planning can bring up grief.
Planning our legacy leads us to think about ourselves or a loved one dying, and that makes us feel sad.
First of all, we must know that feeling grief during this process is normal. For example, I sometimes feel sad when I sit down to write out stories I want to pass down to my grandchildren. I imagine them without me, and I grieve on their behalf, as strange as that may sound. But I’m told this is normal.
Whatever grief is brought up in this process, we can seek the comfort of our grieving Savior. Jesus not only modeled grief when he wept over his friend Lazarus’ death, he lamented his own approaching death in the Garden of Gethsemane (See John 11:35; Luke 22:39-46). United to the one who bore our griefs for us, we can walk through grief with the hope of glory.
4. Legacy planning can lead to anxiety.
Just as it is normal to fear death and experience grief as we plan our life and legacy, it is also normal to feel anxiety when we talk about the things our loved ones will need in crisis or death.
I’ve noticed that whenever my husband and I have what I call “legacy conversations,” we both get a little irritable. I’ve finally realized that our irritability is driven by the anxiety that comes when we imagine the possibility of a crisis or death.
Naming our anxiety to God or to a trusted friend or counselor can help to ease it. We can also journal about our fears and struggles. I have made lists of things that I’m anxious about—finding my birth certificate, filling out my advance directive, etc.. After I make the list, I pray for wisdom and insight and guidance to help me overcome these struggles.
5. People fear having hard conversations with family.
Because death is an unwelcome subject in our culture, it can be hard to discuss it with family. In some cases, we fear having to tell one child or grandchild that they will be inheriting less than another. In our Organizing Your Life and Legacy Course, we encourage participants to have conversations with their families “early and often.” Some participants find that their adult children do not want to discuss their parents’ death, while others find peace in the conversation.
Where there are hard truths to share, we can pray for the courage to speak with truth and goodness any hard news we have to give. We can help our family navigate conflict, encouraging them to “be kind, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
6. People don’t know how to get a will or other essential documents.
In the Caring.com study, one of the reasons respondents gave for not having a will was that they didn’t know how to get one, or they were afraid it would be too costly.
Adam Zylstra, tax consultant, recommends employing a lawyer for all but the simplest estates: “Lawyers can be expensive, but the fee for getting it right now is much lower than the fees for getting it wrong.”Some estate lawyers offer a will and power of attorney and advance directive as a low-cost package. In many states, legal services will help people prepare a will for free or at low-cost. In the case of very simple estates, online will services can be a low-cost option. Caring.com offers a consumer’s guide to online will services.
7. People haven’t gotten around to it.
For many of the reasons stated above, we simply procrastinate legacy planning.
There are several helpful ways to address procrastination. In one study, researchers found that thinking of a due date in terms of days rather than years helped people to begin a task sooner.For example, if I imagined that I might face a health crisis in 720 days rather than in two years, I’d be far more likely to begin work on my advance directive. In the case of legacy planning, this technique may not help much, because we don’t know the “due date” of future health crises or our death, and we like to think our due date is far off into the future.
Biblically, we find much encouragement to begin organizing our life and legacy now. We don’t know what a day may bring (Proverbs 27:1); if we keep “doing good,” “in due season we will reap” (Galatians 6:9); and we are “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Accountability and community are two of the most proven tools for helping people continue doing work they tend to put off. This is why we created our courses, to come alongside people and encourage and guide and help them to find the resources they need.
It is true—there are many obstacles to preparing and sharing our legacies. But in Christ, we have the best motivation for overcoming these obstacles. One day, we will be with Christ in eternal glory, in the joyful and welcoming presence of the triune God. We will experience no more grief, no more anxiety, no more bills, no more time crunches, no more caregiving. We will, however, leave behind loved ones who will grieve and who will need our guidance. Out of love for others and with the help of the Holy Spirit and earthly helpers, we can do the hard work of preparing and sharing our legacies in a way that will bless those we leave behind.
I’d love to know. What obstacles have you or another faced in legacy planning? What are your best tips and tricks for overcoming them?
This is a GREAT article. Both my husband and I have been married before and he had his land and home just before he met me. I helped him finish the home and we have been together 12 years now. He still is hesitant to include me in any plans or add me to the home deed. It has been a source of contention with us before and I know that he wants his kids to have a cut of the place, however, they have no desire to be there. They would sell it and take the money. I see this every day because I work with deeds and data with the county we live in. In 2020 after loosing my father and he had no will, we had to go to probate, and sell everything he had. He had no life insurance or will. It was so hard to deal with because it leaves you no time to grieve.
Even though one person may know what the deceased intended, it will not make it all work out like you planned.
This article is something I want my kids to read! I will share with them.