Not only is January the first month of a new year, it is also a time when many celebrate Hunt for Happiness Week (January 16-22, 2022). Happiness is something that humanity, in large part, has spent a tremendous amount of effort pursuing throughout history. Early on, happiness likely came from simple victories such as having a full belly, surviving another day, or simply staying warm. Over time, with the progress of civilization, happiness may have come from more complex sources such as art and literature, family and romantic relationships, religious worship, access to a wider variety of food and drink, education, and novel experiences. For many people, a lifetime is spent accumulating wealth in the effort to find happiness. But does the mere accumulation of wealth guarantee happiness? It depends on who you ask, of course. But most people will agree that happiness can be found from a variety of sources beyond total dollars reflected on a balance sheet.
When it comes to finding happiness for both you and your loved ones, consider how your estate planning might play a role in that process. The following steps can help ensure that the effort you put into your estate planning will contribute to your and your family's happiness rather than diminish it.
Step 1: Identify what makes you happy and prioritize it.
Rather than simply assuming that property or cash will bring continuing happiness to not just you but also your family when you are gone, it is important to think about how you can use your money and property to generate happiness. Here are some examples:
- Is there a hobby that you and your loved ones enjoy that you could more easily engage in as a result of the availability of money? Perhaps you and your children have enjoyed hunting or fishing trips together over the years. Maybe you and your loved ones have a love of live theater or musical performances that has brought you joy over the years as you have shared such experiences.
- Were your international travel experiences something that you will never forget and that you would like to help your loved ones experience as well?
- Was your education a source of joy and satisfaction over the years that you would like your loved ones to be able to experience?
- Is there a special vacation location or property that has many happy memories associated with it?
Whatever experiences and activities have brought you happiness throughout your life, the first step is to identify them and determine whether or not you would like to make them a priority in your estate planning.
Step 2: Review your important documents to see if they reflect your priorities.
Once you have identified your priorities, you should review your important estate documents, such as life insurance and retirement account beneficiary designations, wills, trusts, pay-on-death designations on accounts, and the deeds and titles on your property. Do you understand how your accounts and property will be transferred or paid out when you die? If so, will that process realistically result in your accounts and property supporting the priorities that you have identified in Step 1? Or does your current plan risk allowing the accounts and property to be used or spent on things other than your priorities? If so, are you comfortable with that potential result?
Step 3: Contact your advisor team to make necessary changes or additions to your planning.
If you are not comfortable with the way that your current plan meets your priorities, then it is crucial that you do not delay in addressing these issues with your professional advisors, such as your attorney and financial planner. Your attorney can help you craft provisions in your will or living trust that will set aside a sum of money to fund education for successive generations, travel, hunting trips, family reunions, or other experiences that create happy memories you would like to pass on. Further, in order for you to protect your property from being squandered on material possessions or expenses that bring little happiness to your loved ones, you may need to change beneficiary designations on life insurance, retirement accounts, or cash accounts to be payable to a trust, or make other protective arrangements that can help you achieve your priorities.
It is only with careful planning that you can turn something as mundane and inanimate as money and property into experiences and opportunities that can bring true and lasting happiness to you and your loved ones. With proper direction from you, your advisors have the tools to help you effectively meet this worthwhile goal. Such efforts will undoubtedly increase the likelihood that you and your loved ones will find the happiness and satisfaction in life that is readily available to those who diligently seek it.