“Thinking implies a conclusion based on an observation that has not been verified beyond the fact of the observation. Knowing implies a conclusion based on a verified observation. In other words: knowing is a form of experiential knowledge, whereas thinking is a form of assumed knowledge.”
Did you know that there is neuroscientific research that quantifies the empirical difference between thinking and knowing? If you want to get lost for hours in philosophical thought, just dive into the vast commentaries concerning epistemology – the study of knowledge and justified belief.
But perhaps we will discuss that another time. Right now, I have a very important real-life example of the difference between thinking and knowing – the damnable process of settling an estate that my brother and I thought was in order. In truth, we had drawn conclusions on the financial and material state of my parent’s estate affairs based on our observations of our father who was “always” sharp and on top of things but we didn’t verify that our conclusions were true.
Now I know you are saying, “But Erika, you work for a financial planner – don’t you practice what you preach?” Well yes, I do and my brother and I thought our parents had heeded our advice. But there’s that ominous word thought again…
2.5 years ago, my brother, Fred and I sat down with Mom and Dad for the big “family meeting.” At the time, both Mom and Dad were in their early eighties but still living comfortably in their multi-level 4-bedroom home. Dad was active and fit, went to the gym daily, enjoyed his games of golf, and kept busy with various community board activities and church council. He loved to work in the yard and they both enjoyed their neighbors. Mom was a little less outgoing and was in a stage of slow decline following a stroke 4 years prior that she had mostly recovered from aside from the immobilization of her right arm and some mental cognition and depression issues.
My dad had always been very keen with his finances and systematic in his record keeping – at least for him. To us his filing system was convoluted – but what do you do? His system had worked for him for years and after 85 years of living there is not much you can do to change someone’s ways. Dad did all the financial business for the household while Mom spent the money, but not carelessly. For the most part, they lived frugally even though they could have pursued a loftier lifestyle – they were simple folk with simple tastes and were happy in their home.
Dad came to our living room conference prepared… he had a binder ready – complete with a few hand scribbled notes inside and a few bank and brokerage statements. He told us where his accounts were held and what types they were. He told us the house was paid off so we didn’t need to worry about that. He explained how he kept track of his savings bonds. He wanted us to know the value of his gun collection and his plans for the sale of any firearms and reloading equipment. He was quite detailed on this – and we took comfort that if he was this detailed about his shotguns, he would be as detailed with the rest of the “stuff.” He told us the silver coins he had collected for my brother and I were in the fire safe along with the deed to the house and his will. He told us he would complete the binder with everything we asked. Mom and Dad had preplanned their “final expenses” and had already secured their resting place in Yellowstone Valley Memorial Park with views of the golf course and rimrocks. They had even done the same for Fred and me! (Gee, thanks!) Dad also told us he had talked to his attorney about the will and that it was his intent that should he die first, Mom would be taken care of as would Fred and I.
It was a good conversation and ended in an upbeat fashion. My visit home came to an end, life continued on and then rapidly went downhill.
Within 4 months of that visit my mom’s health declined rapidly and she was admitted to the hospital the day after Labor Day. This began a series of readmissions on a near monthly basis until her last emergency trip just before Christmas of 2015. At that point, her medical care team deemed her too unstable to return home and the drawn-out process of getting the insurance company to agree to pay for long-term care began. We found a suitable care facility for her in Billings, though she was not happy there nor about not returning home. We had to tailor our discussions of family financial matters and end of life decisions so that she would not lose hope. At some point the discussions just stopped. By March, Mom seemed to rally and her mood brightened only to take us all by surprise by passing peacefully in her sleep on March 20, 2016. The insurance company finally approved her long-term care the following week.
Once the mourning process had settled and Dad had his feet back under him, he told us he met with his attorney. And then, within 2 months of my mother’s death, Dad was diagnosed with cancer and a new battle began. Anyone who has had cancer strike a close family member knows that life as you know it ceases and the focus becomes centered on a cure and recovery and the chaos that surrounds the patient. He had surgery in July, his treatments began in August, and by the middle of November, the doctors declared him cancer free. Unfortunately, in the process of killing the cancer they nearly killed my dad. He never recovered. Despite living on his own throughout the cancer battle, by February of 2017 we knew Dad needed more help than we could provide at home so we admitted him to respite care. In a moment of financial clarity and purpose, my brother was able to accompany Dad to the bank to get Power of Attorney established for his bank accounts in order to keep up with the medical bills we were still receiving for my mom’s care on top of Dad’s.
The respite care became permanent. Soon Dad’s mental faculties began to deteriorate – rapidly and his physical condition did too. He would have moments of cognition but was spending more and more of his days “with” our Mom or out on the range harkening back to his days as a range manager. We never gave up hope, clinging to statements from doctors that his symptoms were not out of the norm for cancer patients, that he had a thyroid deficiency, that if we could get him to eat more his brain would respond. But by March the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was made and it was rapidly attacking his brain.
Talking about end of life issues like wills and beneficiaries is not what you do when you are trying to rally around someone, especially your father. To make matters worse, the disease attacking his brain was making him suspicious and extremely anxious about money issues. The man that once openly discussed financial issues with his children and later adult children had become very protective of the information he gave us. We felt like greedy children looking to grab Dad’s money – when in fact all were doing was trying to understand where things stood. The last thing we wanted was to come across like we were losing hope in his recovery. The chaos of caregiving overrides any thought of financial and estate matters and the emotional toll it takes on the caregiver leaves little energy left for thinking about anything other than getting sleep and praying for miracles.
Pray we did. Then, just 13 short months after our mother passed away, our Dad did too.
I share our story, because we thought we had time for the financial discussions, for confirming what we thought to be true, but once the rapid downward spiral began that time was long past. Life can change in an instant or a year. We were not prepared.
In the aftermath of our parent’s deaths, my brother and I began to discover that what we thought had been taken care of was far different from what actually was.
Dad, God bless him, did have the presence of mind to update his beneficiaries on his IRA’s and brokerage accounts. We can thank his financial advisor for steering him in that direction. When she closed out our mother’s accounts, she made sure Dad’s were up to date – naming my brother and me as beneficiaries. Dad had also arranged for his shooting partner to sell off his shotguns within the trap club community- again, God bless his foresight. But that is where his system ended.
We began discovering death benefits and life insurance policies existed, only when notices from the government arrived in the mail. His savings bond record system that he had meticulously maintained apparently went kaput when his computer was infected with a virus 2 years ago and it was beyond him to start again. And then there is that bastion of family fealty, the will.
Despite all the conversations he had engaged in with his attorney over the past 2 years, that is all they were – conversations. Unfortunately, not every service provider is as proactive as my dad’s financial advisor or Coco Enterprises. The will that was drawn up in 1979 when I was 8 and my brother was 17 was the only one on file. It named my dad’s brother as executor, my mother’s sister as guardian and second executor, and my mother’s brother as the last resort or the estate would be turned over to the bank to be executed. 38 years later, my dad’s brother is in poor health and unable to leave his home, my mother’s sister is 86 and failing, my mother’s brother has passed away, and the bank no longer exists. There was nothing stipulating any changes to my dad’s instructions should my brother and I reach adulthood and be sole survivors. So, despite the fact that my brother and I have no disagreement on how the estate should be divided, the existence of a will does us no favors as it is out of date and leaves much to question.
Welcome to the wonderful world of probate where the wheels of progress turn excruciatingly slow. The attorney who was a phone call away for my dad has far more lucrative cases to focus on and won’t answer any of our questions. We are stuck with a looming estate sale deadline, a house to sell, a brand-new car in the garage whose title can’t be transferred and thus not insured or driven, and savings bonds that can’t be redeemed – until the process of probate is fully fleshed out. We don’t even know who will lead the charge of fleshing it out! And these are just the most obvious objects of the mess.
This is why it is so important to participate in the annual reviews we encourage you to schedule with us. Not only do we go over the performance of your accounts, we make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. We review what accounts you have with us and elsewhere. We track life insurance policies. We request copies of your will if you have one (and believe me, you had better!) so we can help you review it and keep your financial and family lives in step with each other. This is all part of the services we provide our clients because we care about more than just your money – we care about you and your family. We want you to flourish financially. We don’t want to see your financial life become a burden to you or your survivors.
A lot can change in one year; have your estate plans and financial records changed as well? Take it from someone who should have known and not just thought, it is far better and easier to discuss financial matters and end of life plans when life is good than when your mind is clouded with the stress and sorrow of sickness, tragedy, or death.