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How to Avoid an Estate Planning Tragedy

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You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both.
-King Lear, 3.2

I recently purchased a copy of King Lear. Somehow, I had never read this Shakespeare classic. Now, being semi-retired I have some time to read things like this that I missed.

Wow. This is a serious tragedy. And it arises from a failure of retirement and estate planning.

In case you missed the story (or read it many years ago) here is an overview. As the play begins, an aging and addled King Lear decides to divide his lands among his three daughters. He decides to give the largest share to whoever flatters him the most. Lear’s corrupt daughters, Regan and Goneril, are quite willing to lie to their father with excessive expressions of love they do not feel.

Cordelia, his one honest and loyal daughter, refuses to flatter Lear but says with sincerity that she loves him as a daughter should. Offended, Lear disowns and banishes Cordelia.

Lear turns his estate over to Regan and Gonerli and then their true natures are revealed. They treat their father with disrespect and conspire against him.

Virtuous daughter Cordelia returns with an army in an attempt to protect her father but she loses the battle against her evil sisters. Eventually Cordelia is executed. Goneril poisons Regan and later kills herself.  Lear himself ends up blind, impoverished, sick and overwhelmed by grief. The strain overcomes Lear who falls dead on top of Cordelia’s body.

King Lear’s story illustrates the hopes and fears of many of us as we grow old.  We want security and respect, good health (and health care) as we age. We want to leave a positive legacy and a family at peace after we are gone. All of these goals eluded King Lear.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
King Lear, 1.4

While the Lear story is extreme, I have seen bits and pieces of his tragedy occur many times over my long career. Children do sometimes treat their aging parents very badly. Sibling rivalries that have been submerged since childhood can reawaken with volcanic force when a parent becomes incapacitated or dies. A plan that leaves things uncertain under the philosophy that “the kids will sort it all out after I’m gone” can be a recipe for serious family discord. Siblings can battle for years over an inheritance and end up spending more on lawyers and litigation costs than the inheritance is worth.

While a good estate planning lawyer is not going to be able to prevent you from having a thankless child, expert advice and advance planning can minimize the problems that will result. Advance planning for the reality that we are aging and will eventually die can help avoid problems for both you and your family. Heed the lessons of King Lear:

  • Don’t wait until you are addled (like Lear) to plan your estate
  • Plan and prepare in advance for the possibility that you may lose mental capacity in the future
  • Set up a plan to protect your future  financial security
  • Have a well thought out Will and estate plan
  • Get expert professional help from an experienced elder law and estate planning attorney
  • Read Shakespeare (or attend a theater production).