jeanblacklock

I’m looking forward to having some opportunities to speak about my book on estate planning. The dilemma though is to figure out what to talk about because talking about 50 things at one event would break any rule ever written about the amount that an audience can actually take in in one sitting.

So I am approaching it from the wider perspective that there are two types of mistakes we make in planning for our possible incompetency and our ultimate death. The first type include straightforward, perhaps “technical”, mistakes such as not using the right format, not naming the right people, forgetting about some key aspect such as our personal effects, or failing to cover off the family cottage. Those are fairly black and white, right or wrong.

The second type of mistake is more intangible, and includes the mistakes we make when we take on a certain attitude about estate planning. For example, one of my favourites is thinking that the final goal is to have our estate plan all neatly tied with a bow and because that is such a daunting task, we hunker down and don’t do anything – or we delay for a very long time- or when we finally we do it, we think it needs to be perfect so we never complete it.

My professional and personal experience in estate planning is that it is one of those responsibilities in life that not nearly as daunting to start (or finish) as we think. The best approach is to accept that it will never be completely finished ( there will always be little tweaks or changes we want to make as our worldly possessions change and the lives of our loved ones evolve) and just to wade in and start somewhere with whatever remains on your estate planning to-do list.

I did this myself recently when I realized that it REALLY WAS TIME for Andrew and I to prepare a memo to our closest friends about our memorial service, burial and personal effect wishes.  I didn’t want a document that is legally binding as  that would have required it to be signed and witnessed as part of our will, but what I had to do was sit down, open up a Word Document, and get at it. A few revisions later (after Andrew’s suggestions) and we were done. Another person’s bugaboo may be to get started on a will- there again, a couple of simple places to start include getting informed on the topic through books or articles and to ask around among friends and family for a good lawyer referral.

It’s amazing what can be done just by deciding (a) this is a process; and (b) I will do one thing today to move along on this estate planning journey.

Sarah and I wrote the book only a year ago but already it is hard to remember details of the process. Certain key moments stand out in my mind like the evening I sat beside my dad while he slept, writing out a draft table of contents to give to the publisher  – and the January night right before the day in which I really had to get down to writing “Chapter 1”, when all I could think about was how silly it was to have signed on to write a book at all, much less one on estate planning! Luckily Andrew came to the rescue (at 2 am?) and reminded me of the reasons why I wanted to write a book about estate planning pitfalls and in the morning I sat down at the computer and faced that empty Word document and started to write.

Everyone is different when it comes to tackling big tasks but for me it really helps to have a schedule – short term and longer term- and dates by which certain things will be done. Andrew and I were taking Tom and Ted on a cruise in March 2010 so by the day before the cruise, I wanted to have the first draft of the book done…and having decided that, I just worked backwards.

Part of the book’s “schtick” was that it would include anecdotes and experiences from a lot of other people- all having worked in some way in the trust business but including social workers, doctors, lawyers, insurance people, and so on. Sarah did most of the interviews and plugged in the resulting material into a thing she had suggested which is called “Google documents”  – this allowed us to each go in and add and revise without having to constantly email back and forth. Oh, and when I was done a Mistake, Sarah posted it in Google docs for easy future access.

One way or another, the book got written and the work with the publisher about the final title, the cover, the proofreading and edits, the publication date…all that got done too. As I say it is hard to remember details even only a year later. Margaret Atwood was interviewed this week in The Globe & Mail and what she had to say about e-books sort of applies to all writing: Whether the technology is printing a text on a Xerox machine or reading it in a book or writing it on a wall, there is always a triangle: writer, text, reader. So, when people ask me, oh, so how do you write a book, I guess the most honest answer is to say, well, you sit down and you write it.

When I was a kid, my parents hosted a lot of big family dinners during which the display of food and the activity of enjoying it all would take up the entire main floor of their sprawling farm home.   Before everyone descended, my mother would have everything well organized with the buffet table all set and ready to be loaded with an enormous spread, the kitchen counters laid out  with pots and pans and trays like a military operation, and the kitchen’s attached “laundry room” (with a permanently upright ironing board!) stocked with the overflow, like tins of my grandma’s shortbread and trays of Nanaimo bars made by my sister’s mother in law.  However, as precisely well organized as it was before the party, after the marathon of eating ended, the house would be a DISASTER and all of us – other than my formidable mother-  would look around aghast at the debris, wondering what the heck to do and thinking, I recall, that the situation was hopeless.

My mother would then pull out one of her favorite nuggets of wisdom, “Just start in any corner and work your way out”, a thought which has often guided me in my life to do the next logical thing in front of me and not worry about the 1000 other logical things waiting for me. It certainly is a great phrase to keep in mind when you have a little idea about a business about which you actually have no clue, my exact situation  in the summer of 2009 when I thought I “might like to start a bakery”.  After I left the bank, our wedding was July 18th and on July 26th I found myself sitting in a two hour class called “The Business of Baking”, a class to help people figure out what to charge for their baking, to assist them in getting a home-based business off the ground.

I learned from that evening that I probably did not want to have a home-based business but that I did need to get some advice from someone who knew something about the bakery business and the class instructor, Charmaine, impressed me with her calm demeanour – and, hey, she was a farm girl too!  Charmaine promptly replied to my email asking if she would give me advice from time to  time as I set about writing my business plan – and her agreement to do just that meant I had my next logical step: to actually sit down and write out my ideas so as to have something to show Charmaine.

Looking back now, taking that evening class was really “a good corner to start in” although I think the essence  of my mom’s advice is that, really, in the early days of something big there are few missteps that a person can take – just start somewhere!

Upon leaving business life I received a lot of advice to take time, lots of time, to think through what I wanted to do next. My problem is that I am a better doer than a thinker, and for me the best way to figure out what to do next is just to do something, the next most logical thing. I am not advocating this as a good approach for anyone else but sitting in a Starbucks with my laptop on a small, cramped table staring out the window didn’t seem likely to yield up really good ideas for my “next chapter”, as people liked to call it.

So I started thinking seriously about a book idea that I had mulled over for a couple of years, on  the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to estate planning. No longer practicing law or running a trust company it felt like the time was right to say some things on the subject that I believe but may have been awkward to say earlier, such as just because a person has the best lawyer in the world, it doesn’t mean that the Will or the Power of Attorney is going to be “great”. If I heard it once during my career, I heard it a hundred times – someone’s explanation that his or her estate planning was all in good shape because so-and-so of such-and-such firm had done it. Well, good then! Unfortunately, sometimes it turned out that those same people didn’t really understand what their exceptionally-well-drafted documents meant,  and they were too intimidated to ask…not surprisingly, it wasn’t always the case that their estate planning actually achieved what they wanted to achieve.

So the more I thought about a book on common estate planning mistakes, the more convinced I became that the biggest mistakes aren’t necessarily about missing this tax trick  or forgetting that section of some statute…but more about failing to pay attention, thinking estate planning doesn’t really matter “yet”, or just not really caring.

With the benefit of almost two years between then and now, I can admit that leaving the business world after 25 years in an office job was more than a little unsettling. On the first day, I had a home organizer come in to our home to help me get, yes, organized – I remember looking at this very nice person who showed up at my door and thinking, “What am I doing? Shouldn’t I be at the spa or something?”

Two years after that interesting first day, I have written a book on the biggest estate planning mistakes people make and am on the brink of opening a cupcake bakery. I know, I know, those projects don’t seem like logical partners but I started working away at them because I was interested in each of them – and the next thing I knew, they’d taken on lives of their own.

I miss writing the book so I am going to write here about the book and the bakery and the twists and turns I have experienced as they’ve come about. And about leaving the corporate world- from ditching a dozen (okay, maybe more) suits to not having the comfort of a daily schedule jam-packed with meetings – it is a jolt.  One that has worked out well, but interesting nevertheless.

More later, off to see the bakery construction…


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