I have noticed that it is common for clients to feel satisfaction, relief, and empowerment upon completing an estate plan. At a minimum, it is an item checked off the “to do” list. Despite these and other benefits, it is a task that can be very difficult to begin because of the unique connection between estate planning and consideration of death.
I recently read an article analyzing the psychological consequences of estate planning. The author noted that it can be an unsettling process because it involves contemplation of mortality, but concluded that the overall effect of estate planning is therapeutic; we can all “receive contentment from the preparation and implementation of an estate plan.” A Therapeutic Jurisprudential Framework of Estate Planning, 35 Seattle U. L. Rev. 427, 471-2 (2012).
It is common to put off making an estate plan or executing a will as a way to avoid thinking about mortality. We might even be superstitious that we won’t need a will until we make one. While preparing a will, we might consider the grief that loved ones will feel if we die suddenly, or wonder about the uncertainties of death. Our tendency is to avoid these thoughts.
Once we begin, however, the process of preparing an estate plan – with the accompanying contemplation and decision-making – provides an opportunity for reflection. We are asked to consider the options and make meaningful choices with respect to our property, who will care for our children, who we trust to make important decisions for ourselves if we are unable, and what healthcare values are important to us. Engaging in these and other questions can be a therapeutic consequence of completing an estate plan.
Attorneys are in a unique position to support our clients in the psychological aspect of preparing an estate plan. For example, the suggestion to complete a Health Care Directive might prompt a discussion regarding end of life wishes that a couple has not had before. These conversations carry the potential to bring us closer to one another and gain clarity about our beliefs.
I feel privileged that others will allow me, as their estate planning attorney, to assist them in making these personal decisions, sharing private information and allowing me to help them analyze the best plan to accomplish their goals. While what I may offer in some areas is simply support for contemplation, in other areas I can offer suggestions for action, such as ways to ease the burden on loved ones following death, or strategies to reduce estate taxes.
Knowing that anxiety about death can hasten decision-making, I can encourage individuals to thoroughly examine the options before making decisions. Recognizing the interplay between emotions surrounding death and estate planning can also help me build specifics into an estate plan – such as addressing concerns that the probate process will be difficult for family members, or that heirs will argue over assets.
In addition to practical benefits of estate planning, engaging in the process can be therapeutic – providing comfort, satisfaction, and piece of mind.