More Than Money
Issue #22

Money and Death

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

Graduating From Life

When I turned 95, I decided I needed to do some serious thinking about my future. While I still keep up my professional practice as a marriage and family counselor, and am in the middle of working on a book, I know I will not live forever. Just a few months ago, I was in a rehabilitation center for three weeks and I now need a cane to get around. Even though I am still very vital, my time is coming; I'm going to die.

I don't want to approach my death like my husband approached his. He died of Parkinson's Disease, but for years he told people he had arthritis and wouldn't admit what was happening to him. It was painful to see this gifted brain surgeon act as if nothing was wrong even though he no longer could button his shirt. Towards the end, he didn't even ask our children to visit because that would have required admitting his need of them.

That is not for me. I'm not going to "pass on" some day; I'm going to die, and that someday is not all that far away. The question for me is how to make my death a gift. It has been a great pleasure in the last few months to talk about this with my children and think through how to get my affairs in order. I feel liberated by facing an obvious and inevitable truth and making the most of it. By mourning with them now, I am liberating myself to be creative instead of wasting precious creativity on futile substitutes.

There is, for example, great opportunity in what I own. I've got a large house, some stock from my father, several investments purchased out of my husband's earnings, and my own investments. I didn't get my doctorate until I was 57, but I have earned well over a $100,000 a year all through my seventies and eighties. What I decide to do with these assets after my death is a choice with consequences. Those consequences, for good or ill, are a big part of how I will live on after my death, my way of continuing to share.

So what will it be? My children are all usefully independent and need little from me. This means I can devote most of my estate to making a difference in the world. Giving has just been a part of the air I've breathed ever since I was a child. My parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. It was a long time before they became financially comfortable here. Yet, there was always a blue box in the kitchen where we saved our coins to buy trees for Israel.

It is in this spirit that I've set up a charitable fund at a community foundation and named three of my grandchildren as fund advisors. Not many decisions have been made yet, but we have begun talking together about our goals for the fund, and how much of my estate should be turned over to it.

My book is on "graduating from life" creatively, and I'm trying to practice what I preach. My slogan is "We do not grow old; we become old by not growing," and stretching out to others is growing.

- anonymous author

Healing As Best I Can

When I lost my wife to a mountain climbing accident, I not only lost my best friend, but also the child we were in the process of adopting, and the closeness I had treasured with my wife's family.

In return, I became a millionaire. That is probably why my wife's siblings turned so cold toward me. I had only been married to Victoria for a year, and now I had inherited her share of her deceased parents' fortune and family heirlooms. Only I, some close friends, and a number of non-profits received anything; her siblings were not mentioned at all as they were already well provided for.

After Victoria's death, one brother stopped returning my calls and the other said he believed that ownership of Victoria's share of her late mother's jewelry was contestable. Both of their wives wanted the jewelry for their daughters and didn't believe a widower without children had any right to it.

Material things can be so damn corrosive. When we could have been turning to each other in shared grief, we were wrangling over assets. I tried to compromise, giving family members most of the jewelry and willing all of the remainder to their daughters. I also pledged much of the furniture and other heirlooms as soon as I was able to part with them, but said I needed to be true to myself, even if that meant never being able to part with many items Victoria and I shared. I was afraid that letter would be the end of my relationship with her brothers, and there was a long silence. Yet, I may have over-estimated their hard feelings. Her closest brother recently wrote me in a spirit of reconciliation to let me know his family was working on letting go of needing more of the family possessions.

That feels good, but I'm still a 50 year-old, childless, widowed socialist learning to cope with being rich. My relationship to wealth was easier when most of our assets were Victoria's. But, now they are mine. I live in the large house we bought together as part of our adoption plans, and live off and support my anti-racism work with the interest from her principal, which is held in trust for the duration of my lifetime. I have justified my privilege by committing my remaining productive years to a social justice education company I started which holds great promise, and by sharing my large living room and office meeting room for occasional community meetings. I also rent three apartments in the house at below market rates to anti-racism activists whose work I admire. I have willed most of my estate to continue the social justice education company as long as it is successful, and to support groups that Victoria had long supported.

I am slowly letting this wealth become mine. When we were together, Victoria was generous with the money so there wouldn't be too much inequality in our relationship. Yet, if I was going to spend over $500 of our joint money I needed to check with her, and she vetoed many expenditures. I accepted this as fair. But, now it is up to me to decide, and I know she would not approve of all of my choices. She hated what she saw as prestige consumerism and kept a tight budget on vacations, eating out, and buying things that would be fun but rarely used. Me? I am planning on buying a used motor boat, and I added a large atrium to the house and air conditioned it, something she strongly opposed.

It is sometimes confusing to go against the wishes of the woman I still love with what used to be her money, but this gets easier as I heal.

- anonymous author

After My Husband Died

My husband was a college professor, but he made a lot of money consulting with the aerospace industry during the military spending spree of the Reagan years. Since then, the money he invested has skyrocketed in value.

I first had to face up to this money when Bill died in an accident six years ago. Before then I was pretty much in denial about it. We lived the comfortable lifestyle of a university professor's family, well below our means. When I quickly reviewed our tax returns each year, I never really read the bottom lines. Bill managed our investments and most financial matters, except for minor bookkeeping, my professional finances, and our mutual decisions about spending. About a year before he died, he told me that he wanted more help and input, but said he feared that if I shared in managing the money, I might give it all away. I think now that I unconsciously shared this fear.

Certainly, after he died, I was afraid that the money would all disappear because of my carelessness or poor decision-making. I hated the money because it represented the loss of Bill and my needing to take on an overwhelming responsibility. I felt angry with him for dying. "This is your job; why aren't you here taking care of it?" Underneath everything, was profound sadness; he was suddenly gone after 35 years together. I was also afraid that I would lose friends because of the disparity of my newly understood wealth and theirs.

Slowly, with the help of groups like Resourceful Women, Ministry of Money, and the Impact Project, I've learned to cope with having more money than I had ever dreamed of. I've often judged my financial shortcomings harshly, but I'm learning to acknowledge and congratulate myself for the progress I've made. I knew I was getting more savvy when I realized that Bill had been too financially conservative and made some mistakes in how he allocated our investments. This realization freed me up to start restructuring things. It has taken me a long time, but I have shaken off the paralysis of trusting my husband's decisions completely. Now I trust myself and the advisors I've selected to help me.

Still, I'm very grateful to him. I hear stories from other widows about how their husbands left their family's financial papers in shambles. Not Bill. His files were clearly marked. The paper work was always put where it belonged and there were carbon copies of everything. When I pass my financial papers to my four grown children, I want them to be just as organized. I'm also more understanding of Bill. I used to resent the amount of time he spent working on our finances. Now, I get it. Managing money takes time!

I'm actually excited by the challenge of taking charge of the money and using it to enhance the quality of my life, to support my children's and grandchildren's dreams, and to help make the world a more just and peaceful place. Bill was right. I like giving money away.

- anonymous author

Death and Taxes

I lost my father when I was fifteen and became a multi-millionaire. It was horrible having money replace my father, as if that were somehow a fair trade. My mother, who had divorced my Dad years before, didn't know how to help me. She just left me alone, assuming that since I was such a willful, self-sufficient teenager that I would be fine. Her only soothing gesture towards me after my father died was to offer to take me shopping. My father's sister was of little help either. Angry at being left out of the will, she actually stole some things from my father's house, lied about it, and then started badgering me for money.

To cope, I put away my feelings of loss and used my anger to stay strong. I also put off dealing with the money. During my college years, the investments in my trust earned over $15,000 per month, but I only used $1,000 a month for living expenses and turned the rest back over to the family accountant to manage for me. I wanted my money out of sight and out of mind.

That is, until the Gulf War began in 1991. When the bombing started, my college classmates and I were glued to CNN watching the war's progress with horror. We talked constantly about the meaning of the war and our government's role in international politics. I realized that the taxes paid on my trust's earnings were helping to foot the bill for killing Iraqi civilians. I yearned to do something meaningful to oppose these atrocities, so I had to start thinking seriously about my money.

Doing anything about this was a pretty complicated assignment. The investments and income from my trust were controlled by a complex labyrinth of unsympathetic trustees. Frustrated, I consulted with one of the war tax resisters I had met on campus. I explained my financial situation to him, the first time I had shared with anyone that I was an inheritor. Being rich simply wasn't "cool" in the circles I traveled in. Instead of berating me for being wealthy, this fellow offered me encouragement. He told me, "Forget about the money that you can't control. Your task is to figure out how to handle what you do control." That moment was the wake-up call for me. I decided to learn all I could about aligning my money with my values, and preparing for the day when all the money in trust would come under my control.

Taking charge of my money meant facing the long suppressed feelings about my father's death. It took many years before I was ready to focus on the money enough to become an effective giver and socially responsible investor. During this time, I used every tool I could: long talks with friends, journal writing, meditation, seeing a therapist and a wealth counselor, and taking time to be alone.

Looking back, I could have benefited from more forethought on my father's part. My Dad never talked with me about his will. I was probably too young when my father drew it up, of course, but was I too young to talk about money when I was 14 or 15? Couldn't he have at least left a letter of instruction explaining what he was doing and why, and offering me some advice about managing this money?

I especially wish my Dad had left something to every member of his family so there would have been less bitterness directed at me after his death. When I wrote my first will, my lawyer laughed at me because I gave him a list of over 30 individual beneficiaries (which didn't even include the foundations and organizations to which I'm leaving the bulk of my estate). For my friends who already had money, I arranged to put money in a donor advised account for them so they could have the fun of giving it away. I wanted no one left out.

- anonymous author

Getting Ready to Die

I never had much choice about facing my mortality. I was an infantry rifleman in the Korean War and saw guys blown up in combat. Then, after coming back from the war, I totaled a car. I walked away unscathed both times, but death has always been hovering close by, waiting. I even lost one of my first loves to cancer.

When my daughters were little, I wrote my first will. I wanted to provide for my family and felt a little obsessed about getting all the details right. I got some good advice from a smart young attorney who reminded me that when I was dead, I wouldn't really have any control. She encouraged me to trust my wife and children to make their own decisions and not use my will to script everything for them. This helped me to focus on living well everyday and loving my family to the best of my ability. That is my most important gift to them.

Still, having a solid estate plan, which I've updated over the years as my assets grew, has given me confidence that my four daughters will be taken care of when I die. However, it is one thing to have a plan, and another to let your kids in on it. About six years ago, after much reflection, and some prodding from my estate planner, I decided it was finally time to have the "here is what is going to happen when Daddy dies" discussion with my daughters. They were in their late 20s and early 30s.

I knew I had passed on the good genes and values that my parents had passed on to me, but I also knew that since I had become an affluent businessman, they would have the challenge of dealing with the wealth I would leave behind. I felt it was my parental responsibility to mentor them in this new area of development. When they were little, I made sure to take them to the ballet and symphonies, stuff I missed out on in my childhood. This seemed like the same kind of thing to me. I had exposed them to the cultural side of life, now it was time for me to expose them to the financial side.

To give them the big picture, I invited all of them over for a 3-day holiday weekend, telling them I wanted to host a family meeting about my estate planning and how they would fit into it. Having been a consultant all my life, I prepared charts and graphs and started putting on a full dog and pony show presentation for my girls. One of my daughters blurted out, "Dad, this means you are going to die!" and then burst into tears. At that point, all my daughters said they needed some time together and the four of them went off and talked until two in the morning.

At breakfast the next day, they were ready to go back and listen. Having learned something from the day before, I asked them what they wanted to talk about, and what questions they had. I listened carefully, answered some questions, and promised to write memos to them about the rest. We then went out to play together.

They asked for another family meeting three months later. At that one, we decided that the best way to get them ready to handle large amounts of money would be to set up a joint investment account to manage together as a family investment club. I put in $250,000 and we spent the rest of the meeting discussing the investment process and how they could make money work for them.

At the end of the first year, we lost money, a valuable lesson in itself. In all of the years since, we have done well, split the earnings at the end of the year, and started over with only my initial investment. Soon they were reading stock tables, getting advice from financial advisors, and recommending which stocks to purchase.

I introduced a new idea about three years ago--that one equal share of the earnings be allocated for charitable donations and that we determine together what groups this money would support. This took us to a whole new level. Before then, I had never taken the time to talk to them about why I contribute both money and time. Now we were talking about each of our dreams and visions for the world, and how our financial abundance could help make those dreams come true.

Then, a couple of years ago, with the stock market continuing to rise and my assets increasing ever more dramatically, I gifted them $150,000 each as a "cushion," something their mother and I never had when we were young. This gift also served to help them learn to fly solo and manage a significant chunk of change on their own. Even more recently, I called another family meeting so I could finally make a full disclosure of my estate, my distribution plans, the tax consequences, my personal charitable donations, and discuss my idea of forming a family foundation. The discussion was animated and filled with a sense of trust and possibility.

The emotional rewards of this process have been enormous. We've had regular communication and common tasks to keep us in touch as well as more casual phone calls, letters, and visits that have nothing to do with family finances. Preparing for my death has brought us much closer together. I know my children will mourn when I die, but they will live fully and responsibly, and be in close touch with each other no matter where their lives take them. This has brought me great peace.

This sense of peace was tested recently when I had a prostate cancer scare. I thought that might be the last punch in my ticket. It wasn't, but it made me realize I'm ready to go anytime.

- anonymous author

Choosing to Die Broke

Joe: For over 40 years, Terry and I have shared the same ideals about voluntary poverty. We were both influenced by Dorothy Day, whom we knew through the Catholic Worker, and people like Jesus, Gandhi, Saint Francis, and Henry David Thoreau.

Terry: While we raised our kids, we lived a more middle-class life, with a good-sized house in Amherst, MA, a car, vacations, and two inheritances in the bank. We lived relatively simply compared to some of our neighbors though, and our children sometimes felt deprived.

Joe: After the kids were grown, Terry and I moved to a cabin in the forest in the Berkshires to start a spiritual retreat center. We hadn't originally intended to live in such a small cabin with no telephone or electricity, but it felt right. We have lived here for 15 years.

Terry: Now our needs are minimal and we have given away most of our money to social change groups. When we told our children of our decision not to pass any money on to them--just a few special things from the family--they did not appreciate it. They pointed out the inequity of their children not having the educational and travel opportunities which we all enjoyed together because of Joe's and my inheritances. Our children also worry about our lack of private health insurance. We are signing a statement that Joe and I take full responsibility for our health and how we live, but this does not resolve their worries.

Joe: I feel strongly that I don't want tens of thousands of dollars put into keeping us alive. With me at age 71 and Terry at 81, we imagine growing older may bring infirmity and sickness, but we don't want to pour money into the medical system. Real security comes from strength of faith and spiritual practice and from a sense of centeredness. We have no significant fears or hesitations about deciding to give our money away.

Terry: Well, almost none. In our efforts to foster justice in the wider human family, our own family feels hurt. How can we break the chain of inheritance, and its underlying social inequity, without causing undue pain at home? I don't know. We're still struggling with that.

--Joe and Terry Haven

Adapted from an interview in We Gave Away A Fortune by Anne Slepian and Christopher Mogil. Postscript: Terry died in 1992, after refusing surgery that might have prolonged her life. Joe, after suffering a serious decline due to Parkinson's Disease, chose to fast to death in 1994.

Loving My Dad, Not My Inheritance

I always had the idea that I could afford to be a flake. I could afford to get thrown out of Harvard and be wild because one of these days I was going to inherit a lot of money. Then one day when I was in India, my spiritual teacher called me in and said, "Your father has a lot of money... You are not to accept an inheritance." I was startled. I said, "Okay," while thinking to myself, "I'll deal with that when the time comes."

At the time, I didn't know whether I would honor what my guru said or not. I thought that coming from a family of lawyers I'd figure out a way around it. Yet, on a spiritual level the mandate felt right to me. I knew that my father saw everybody as wanting his money, and I didn't want to be one of those people. It would mean that he wouldn't trust my love. Ultimately, I set up a special account for any future inheritance with the intention that every penny would be given away.

Once I shifted my intention towards my inheritance the effect was profound. My lifestyle was no longer impeded by my father continuing to live. I hadn't been aware that I was wanting his money and waiting for him to die. Now that I stopped doing so, suddenly I was helping him remarry. He and his wife and I became close buddies. I just wanted him to be happy; he had worked hard, I wanted him to enjoy spending his money. While I never spoke to him about my intention, once I stopped wanting his money, I was freed up to love him--and he recognized that.

- anonymous author

Adapted from an interview in We Gave Away A Fortune by Anne Slepian and Christopher Mogil. Available from The Impact Project.

© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved