Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - "Choose It or Lose It" - Part One

"CHOOSE IT OR LOSE IT" - Part One   

"Emotions [can] run high over who gets Grandma's pearl necklace or Dad's fishing pole. Disagreements over who gets what can lead to bawling and brawling between siblings that can scar relationships forever."
John Ewolt 
Some families could care less about their parents' and grandparents' personal property, as I described in last week's Wednesday Wisdom. Other families, however, deeply value their heirlooms and personal artifacts. In such families, the failure to plan properly for their division and distribution can create significant family harmony issues.
When most people plan their estates, they largely focus on how their money and their property will be distributed, but they usually pay scant attention to the "stuff." While those personal effects may have little monetary value, often they carry tons and tons of sentimental value. Unfortunately, dividing up those items is the one part of the estate settlement process that is most likely to create lasting relational problems in a family.
Estate planning clients (and their advisors) often make at least one of these potentially devastating mistakes:
1.)  They leave the issue for others to address after their death.  
2.)  They fail to establish a process that feels fair to their heirs.
3.) They postpone the matter to a time when emotions and tensions are already high, such as in the middle of the grieving process.

Any one of these slip-ups can light a fuse that could blow family relationships to smithereens.
Many times, if the will says anything at all about the personal property, it simply instructs the children to work it out among themselves. My dear friend John A. Warnick, a SunBridge advisor from Denver, Colorado, uses a powerful metaphor to describe the havoc this approach can create, as quoted in a New York Times article:
"I ask parents to think just for a second what it would be like on Christmas morning if your children ran downstairs and there were all of these presents, bright and shining, big and small, but with no name tags on them," he said. "Can you imagine the free-for-all that would ensue?"
Doing nothing and believing that your children will divide things without quarreling, he said, will not work. "It's the denial that my children will never fight, they'll never quarrel, they'll just accept it," he said. "That denial is a temptation for many people to not put the time and energy into carefully designating and selecting personal property." (
Some parents unfortunately use the "stickers-on-the-bottom-of-the-item" method. Even ignoring the danger of the stickers falling off or being moved or removed, this is a dangerous game. Seldom does every object receive a label and never does the outcome turn out to be equitable. It usually ends up favoring the child who is the most pushy or manipulative or close-at-hand, the one who is willing to push the limits with the parent. Those who draw the short straw in this system often end up resenting both their parent and the sibling(s) favored by the parent's stickers.
My father-in-law, Henry Ware Hobbs, Jr., saw firsthand during his long career as an attorney in Brookhaven, Mississippi, how this issue can destroy families, and he was determined that he would not let it happen to his six children. In the fall of 1986, many years before his unexpected passing in 1993, he sent them each a large legal file entitled "Choose It or Lose It."
As I described in last week's Wednesday Wisdom, he preserved the stories of each item by photographing every heirloom object he owned and writing a paragraph about each item, summarizing what he knew of its history: who owned it, how they acquired it, how they used it, how it came into his possession, and any other tidbits of information.
But he did not stop there. He went on to outline a simple process under his direction for making a fair and equitable division of those heirlooms in a calm and dispassionate setting. It was pure genius.
To be continued . . . .


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Is this the End of Family Heirlooms?


"Our most treasured family heirlooms are our sweet family memories. The past is never dead, it is not even past."
William Faulkner



A recent article on the website ( paints a bleak picture for the present and future value of family heirlooms.
"For the first time in history of the world, two generations are downsizing simultaneously," says Mary Kay Buysse, a senior move manager, talking about the boomers' parents (sometimes, the final downsizing) and the boomers themselves. "I have a 90-year-old parent who wants to give me stuff or, if she passes away, my siblings and I will have to clean up the house. And my siblings and I are 60 to 70 and we're downsizing."
This, it seems, is 21st-century life - and death. "I don't think there is a future" for the possessions of our parents' generation, says antique dealer Carol Eppel. "It's a different world."
According to the article, many of the staples of previous generations' households - sets of china, large pieces of solid wood furniture, centuries' old family portraits, etc. - no longer fit the lifestyles of Millennials and Gen-Xers.
"Young couples starting out don't want the same things people used to have," says Susan Devaney, a senior move manager. "They're not picking out formal china patterns anymore. I have three sons. They don't want anything of mine. I totally get it."
Mary Kay Buysse agrees. "This is an Ikea and Target generation. They live minimally, much more so than the boomers. They don't have the emotional connection to things that earlier generations did," she notes. "And they're more mobile. So they don't want a lot of heavy stuff dragging down a move across country for a new opportunity."
This phenomenon hits close to home. Over the New Year's holiday, my wife and her siblings divided and distributed the contents of their mother's large Mississippi home, which had been sold after their mother moved to a nursing home. It was a challenging, emotional time for all.
I'm happy to report that the process went smoothly and nearly everything found a new home, thanks in large measure to the fact that there are six children and 16 grandchildren who treasure their family heritage. The secret is that this family knows the family stories and has associated those stories with the physical objects that faithfully served earlier generations of the family. Mindful of that history, newer generations now cherish those heirlooms and share those narratives with their children.
It didn't happen by chance. Back in the early 1990's my wife's father, Henry Ware Hobbs, Jr., took steps to cement his children's affection for their heirlooms. He photographed every heirloom object he owned and wrote a paragraph about each item, summarizing what he knew of its history: who owned it, how they acquired it, how they used it, how it came into his possession, and any other tidbits of information. He distributed a copy of this amazing handmade catalogue to each of his children as part of the process of dividing up his possessions well in advance of his death. In other words, he related and preserved the story of each painting, chair, table, and armoire, and its role in the family's history.
Upon his untimely passing a few years later, those heirlooms were distributed to his children. As those objects found new homes, they were considered by their new owners as far more than just dishes, artwork, or pieces of furniture. They were tangible symbols of who the family was and is, and visible links between today's generations and their ancestors. They tied Henry's children to their roots and helped them answer the universal question, "Who am I?"
Story is the key. The article reinforces this point.
"Every single person, if their parents are still alive, needs to go back and collect the stories of their stuff," says financial adviser Holly Kylen.
One of Kylen's clients inherited a set of beautiful gold-trimmed teacups, saucers and plates. Her mother had told her she'd received them as a gift from the DuPonts because she had nursed for the legendary wealthy family. Turns out, the plates were custom-made for the DuPonts. The client decided to keep them due to the fantastic story.
Henry Hobbs' genius lay in understanding that children and grandchildren don't value family heirlooms unless they know both the history of the object and the history of the previous owners. Recognizing this, he then took tangible steps to convey that history to his posterity. His homemade catalogue and its collection of pictures and stories is a treasure in its own right, but it is much, much more. Like the Rosetta Stone of ancient Egypt, it was the key to unlocking the wonders of the past for current and future generations of the Hobbs family.

Physical objects with no story attached are just stuff. But they become real treasures when connected to their narrative. Stories bring those objects to life and help us understand their role in the fabric of the family. Loved ones' legacies are perpetuated when personal possessions and family stories are woven together, shared, and passed forward, generation after generation.
So, what can you do to capture, preserve, and pass on your family's artifacts and their stories?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - The Difference Between Cherry Tomatoes and Snow Peas


"I have been finding treasures in places I did not want to search. I have been finding beauty where I did not want to look. And I have learned so much from journeys I did not want to take."
Suzy Kassem    

Here it is the middle of February and I'm still harvesting from my fall garden and thinking about the upcoming spring planting season. Two of my most prolific crops this time around, cherry tomatoes and snow peas, present different harvesting challenges.

Picking cherry tomatoes is easy: when they turn red, you pluck them right off the vine. They're not at all hard to find. The only difficulty is resisting the urge to pop them into your mouth right there in the garden. If you succeed, you come home with a sweet little pile of treasure.

Picking the wily snow pea, on the other hand, is a different challenge. They are masters of disguise. They secrete themselves among the leaves in perfect camouflage. When you think you've picked them all, you can come back a minute later and pick just as many. Then you return a third, a fourth, even a fifth time and find still more. How do they hide so well?

Some of life's lessons and opportunities are like cherry tomatoes and some are like snow peas. Some are easy to spot when they're ripe for the picking; they're sweet and tasty. Others, however, are less obvious. You have to search for them, and sometimes they're hiding in plain sight. They conceal themselves among all the "stuff" of life. You think you've uncovered them all and then you come back and discover more.

I love both, but I must say that it's more gratifying to successfully harvest snow peas than cherry tomatoes. That which is too easily earned or learned is not as greatly appreciated.

Now I'm wondering - was that a snow-pea or cherry-tomato lesson I just shared?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - The Surprising Benefit of Cleaning Up


"In the scope of a happy life, a messy desk or an overstuffed coat closet is a trivial thing, yet I find that getting rid of clutter gives a disproportionate boost to happiness."
Gretchen Rubin 

According to U.S. News & World Report, Americans spend an average of one year of their lives looking for lost or misplaced items. The American Demographic Society says we waste a total of 9 million hours per day looking for mislaid articles.
I'm not a total slob, but I will confess that my office can sometimes get messy. I decided this weekend that enough was enough, and resolved to take real action. In the past, when I had these urges toward cleanliness, I would just move stuff around and make neater stacks. Within a few days, unfortunately, I'd be right back where I was, neck-deep in clutter.
This time I came to the conclusion that I needed something more lasting. I decided that for me, the best long-term solution was to go paperless. Since then my scanner, my shredder, and I have been working overtime to clean and organize my space. I still have a long way to go, but I can report significant progress in my move to digitize my work papers. In doing so, I made an amazing discovery.
As my project progressed, I found something even better than a clean desk. What I discovered was a clearer mind. It turns out that disorganized or unnecessary stuff hides worries that clutter our brains as well as our desks.
As each pile of paper disappeared into the scanner/shredder, I found I could stop worrying about overlooked obligations - both real and imagined - lurking in those untidy mounds. By eliminating the fear of missing unknown assignments, my mind was able to identify actual priorities and develop lists and plans for getting them done. That has given me a surge of energy and creativity, since I am no longer dragging around a mountain of nagging worries.
This project has given me a greater sense of mental clarity and control over my work life. This process lifted a huge burden from my shoulders, a burden I wasn't even consciously aware of. I'm excited about getting more digitized and better organized, not only for the look of my office but for the feeling of relief I feel. I'm determined to get rid of all my paper clutter and free my mind for the things that really matter.