Lessons I Learned after My Father's Death

Even after thirty years in the financial planning industry, I am constantly learning and gaining new professional experience. This time, however, the experience came from the recent, painful loss of my dad. His passing came after nine years of his living in elder care facilities and his slow deterioration, which included dementia, the loss of his senses, his ability to perform the activities of daily living and more. As I learned with my father’s death, no matter how prepared you think are you are—even if you've got things reasonably organized and legally documented—the reality is, you’re never quite prepared for the death of a loved one. This posting is very personal. I want to share some of the lessons I have learned through this ordeal.

Lesson 1: Look at the Big Picture

Over the last years of my father’s life, I stayed with him two to three weeks a year in several of the retirement homes and assisted living facilities he lived in. While these facilities always looked nice inside and out, I learned firsthand about what goes on behind the scenes: the misrepresentation in the sales disclosures, the common need to hire private in-home care to supplement the care provided by the facility, and the day-to-day realities of these seniors as their physical and mental situations change. I have helped many clients with retirement planning decisions over the years—and all too frequently, they are driven by family dynamics in addition to the financial realities. It’s so important to consider the big picture, which can cover a significant period of time. Variables will change. Consider all the possibilities; don’t gravitate toward a quick fix.

Lesson 2: Love with Your Heart, Make Decisions with Your Head

I firmly believe that the more you know, the more you’ll find you don’t know. Even if you’re very knowledgeable on a given topic, if you make decisions with your heart, you’re putting yourself at risk for making mistakes.

We do the best we can for those we love, but sometimes things don’t turn out the way we want them to. The best thing we can do for a loved one who is dying is to honor that person. Cherish the time you spend with them. Express your gratitude for your shared history. Give them what they deserve until the end: respect!

Unfortunately, my dad’s wishes were not respected. In the last several years of his life, I relinquished some control to two relatives who turned out to be wolves in sheeps’ clothing. Twice in my father’s legal documents (his will and living trust) in 1977 and 2000, he had named me, solely, in charge of handling of the estate. However, reality and the paperwork parted ways. In the beginning, I attempted to make things better for him, but found that starting a legal battle at that time might have been extremely disruptive to my father’s physical condition. These relatives purposefully excluded me, for the most part, from the decision-making process. My father told me bits and pieces about how they had treated him in my absence, but I felt hog-tied to do much about it. As the beginning of the end unfolded, the horror only grew. Then the guilt set in. I know you can’t change the past, but I began to question my actions...should I have fought them legally?

Lesson 3: Listen to Your Loved One

Sadly, that is not where it has ended. From the day after my dad’s passing, the disregard began. It was as if my father’s life and choices had no meaning. Within days the financial battle was set in motion. These two relatives have tried to supersede estate law and make claim to financial assets that are not theirs, as was specified in my dad’s trust. The more I learn about their choices, the worse it gets. I am currently embroiled in a legal battle over the estate value and distribution. The whole process has been very sad—and very insulting to my dad. Before passing away, Dad warned me that these family members would steal his money, but I couldn’t fathom it: these particular relatives are very well-off, financially, on their own. I trusted family, as we are "supposed" to do, and now I am dealing with the resultant mess that has occurred as a result of my well-intentioned, but misplaced, trust.

As I proceed, I will try to honor my father’s legal financial desires. Despite the emotional ramifications of this negative experience, I know that these lessons will make me a better financial planner. To lessons learned!