There’s an old Yiddish phrase “un kinder aus yachsen mit bupkes ist immer bupkis!”  (a child from a distinguished heritage with nothing is still nothing). In other words, it doesn’t matter how important or distinguished someone’s lineage is if each generation doesn’t otherwise live up to the family’s standards.

I think about that phrase from time to time when I hear complaints about adult children who haven’t lived up to their parents’ expectations in one way or another. Perhaps they spend too much money relative to what they earn, or they bounce from job to job without advancing their career, or they fail to finish their education.

Oftentimes the complaining parents are quite successful. They might be doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners or community leaders. Most of the time the patriarch and matriarch themselves arose from modest backgrounds and had to earn and scrape for everything they now enjoy.

Their children, on the other hand, don’t have the same frame of reference. The parents wanted their children to have it much easier than they had, so the children’s lives were easier. The children had more handed to them – they didn’t have to work and earn for everything that they have.

So is it any surprise that the children don’t have the same drive and ambition that their parents had?

Which leads me to today’s estate planning lesson. It’s not uncommon to hear a client say that they don’t want the inheritance to take their children’s drive and ambition away. A trust might be built that provides supplemental income but cannot be used for sole support.

These are all good ideas. But isn’t it a little too late to teach these lessons through a will or trust? The average life span for someone who is currently sixty-something years old is eighty-six.  In other words, today’s sixty year old can expect to live another twenty-six years all things being equal.

If the children are thirty years younger, then they will become trust beneficiaries in their fifties – or maybe even their sixties.  Will an incentive or supplemental needs trust really work to change habits that have been ingrained for several decades by that point?

Somehow the lessons and values that made the parents what they are need to be ingrained at a much earlier age. Anyone with any means struggles with these issues – myself included. I grew up in a very modest setting, and have worked to earn my own way from a very early age.  While I didn’t want my own children to have to work like I did, somewhere there’s a line that one doesn’t want to cross.

I think that it is certainly more difficult today than it was a generation or two ago.  Smart phones, the Internet, Netflix, and many other modern conveniences tend to distract us from having important family dinner discussions.  Travel soccer teams take away time that would otherwise be spent learning morals and values in synagogue or at church.  Two-income households mean that both Mom and Dad are exhausted at the end of the day and don’t have the stamina to oversee homework or to attend school functions.

Somehow we all must work to change this dynamic.

This isn’t to say that all children are on the wrong path and will become irresponsible spendthrifts later in life.  I actually believe quite the contrary. There are a lot of good kids out there who work hard to earn good grades and are quite ambitious.

But there are also many who don’t appreciate what their parents have built for them, and what their parents had to sacrifice to get the family where it currently is. And that, my friends, is not necessarily the kids’ fault.

It’s all of ours.

Hopefully the pendulum will swing back as many realize what’s happening. Until then, I’m afraid there will be many more estate planning discussions centering on how to protect our children from themselves when they inherit the assets that took so long and hard to earn.

© 2020 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

7 New Years Tips for Your Estate Plan

As we turn our calendars to 2020, tradition dictates that we make New Year’s resolutions.  What are yours this year?  Is it to lose weight? Give up self-destructive vices such as smoking or drinking? Allow me to suggest seven estate planning to-dos that shouldn’t be ignored:

  1. Update Your Will

That will which sits in your safety deposit box – yeah we know – the one that names your sister Nancy to act as the guardian for your children who are now in their forties – desperately needs to be updated. Your family and financial circumstances have significantly changed since then – notwithstanding the fact that you no longer reside in Michigan where it was drawn up.

  1. Sign a New Durable Power of Attorney 

This document needs updating just as much as your will does – and may be more important to you than your will! That is, att least if your will is a problem it doesn’t affect you – after all – you’ll be dead!  You’ll just leave a mess behind for your loved ones. But your durable power of attorney affects YOU!  If you become incapacitated and don’t have a valid durable power of attorney document that names someone who can write checks, pays bills and manage your financial and legal affairs, the alternative is a court ordered guardianship. That’s no fun and can be insanely expensive.

  1. Take a Look at your IRA and 401(k) Beneficiary Designations

It could be a real downer for your current spouse to discover that your former spouse is still named as the primary beneficiary on your IRA and 401(k) accounts. Another bummer is when your stock broker switched firms and forgot to have you update the beneficiary documents. When that happens the Custodial Agreement controls who gets the IRA or 401(k). Have you ever read your Custodial Agreement? It’s the thin onion skin paper thingy that comes in the mail when you opened your account. The one you threw out along with the prospectus to all the mutual funds. What the Custodial Agreement may say is that your estate becomes the beneficiary if you don’t name one. Federal tax law – our friends at the IRS – shout with glee when your estate becomes your beneficiary because upon your demise your entire account becomes immediately taxable as income.

  1. Update Your Health Care Directives 

Unless you wish to become the next Terri Schiavo, you should strongly consider signing a new living will and health care surrogate. You may remember the Dunedin, Florida woman who was on life support for 15 years.  Schaivo’s court case between her husband who insisted that she would have wanted to remove the food and water tubes and her parents who argued she wasn’t in a persistent vegetative state – resulted in a political and media circus involving the United States Congress and the Supreme Court. I don’t know about you, but one of my lifetime goals does not include having my private health care matters being mentioned by our esteemed Congressmen and Senators preening for votes on national television.

  1. Dust off your Life Insurance and Annuity Beneficiary Designations

For many of the same reasons I mention in #5 above, it’s a good idea to dust off the beneficiary designations to your life insurance and annuities. If you have any chance of having a taxable estate for federal estate tax purposes, now may be a good time to investigate removing the life insurance from your taxable estate by using any number of strategies, including an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT). If you already have such a trust but don’t have all your “Crummey notices” (the ones that made the contributions to the ILIT tax free) saved in one place, gather them together and give them to your estate attorney so that he will have copies in case they are ever needed. When might they be needed? Not until your death when your estate tax return is audited. By then you obviously won’t be around to tell everyone where they are. Save your friendly attorney (not to mention your family affected by the taxes that our friends at the IRS may impose when the Crummey letters can’t be verified) from the stress and organize the file.

  1. Make a Tangible Personal Property List 

Believe it or not, it’s usually not the money or real estate that the kids fight over. Those things can be divided up rather easily. It’s the heirlooms that cause the most strife. Dad’s baseball card collection. Mom’s engagement ring. The painting on the wall. Creating a list of who is to get what can avoid some heated arguments in the stress of losing a parent.

  1. Make General Lists 

Do those important to you know where your financial accounts are located, how to log onto your accounts online or which bank branch your safety deposit box is located? All sorts of personal information might be very difficult to find in the event of your incapacity or death. Unless your son is Sherlock Holmes it’s a good idea to let them all know where these important documents and items can be found.

Just as most of us give up on our resolutions by January 2nd, do yourself (and your loved ones) a big favor.  If you haven’t taken care of these matters, try your best to do so. Unlike losing weight or getting more exercise, you can delegate most of these tasks among your advisors such as your friendly estate planning attorney, accountant and financial advisor.

Have a Happy and Healthy 2020!

© 2020 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun

Of Faith and Reason

With the passing of Christmas and Chanukah, I thought I’d write about faith. I appreciate how both holidays engender serenity and redemption in the face of brutality, shine light during times of darkness, and bring forth messages of hope. Yet we live in a time when people ridicule those of faith.

Human beings have many faculties at their disposal. We have a brain to process information, emotions that move us, and intuition that guides us. We have our sensory tools of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. So where does faith fit in?

Many don’t view faith as a basic human faculty, rather they see it more as the absence of reason. Others are even more cynical, claiming that faith is a sign of weakness, something to resort to when all else fails. In earlier times, cynics say, faith was a necessity because man didn’t have science to help explain the laws of nature, but in the face of reason and all of man’s brilliant accomplishments, we have outgrown our need for faith. Isn’t faith simply a creation of our imagination to deal with issues we can’t comprehend?

We know how to access reason, as we have cultivated it our entire lives — at school, work and elsewhere. We are all born with faith, it’s a natural state. Young people readily accept notions they don’t understand because faith is inherent in all of us.

Faith is not, however, to be confused with childish naiveté, gullibility or laziness. Children tend to lose faith as they grow older in our society, when they experience hypocrisy or have been lied to. The child, to protect himself, begins using reason alone to process ideas, effectively silencing his inner voice telling him that, even though something cannot be grasped with his hand or totally understood with his mind, it may exist.

We all realize that we can’t sense everything, yet know it exists, as two examples — radio waves and electricity. Yet we don’t allow ourselves to contemplate an omnipresent higher being, writing that off as fictional storytelling.

Consider your family dog. He certainly possesses certain human-like qualities, including the ability to express certain emotions. Like us, he has the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Even as smart as he seems to be, he can’t operate a car, contemplate his future, solve a crossword puzzle or be amazed at the artistry of Mozart. His brain has certain limitations.

Like our family pet, isn’t it possible that we also have limitations, albeit at a higher level? Can we not reason that human beings may be limited in some way that hides the Eternal from us? Could this incapability be by design? Is there a spiritual reality beyond that which we can see, feel, hear and touch?

Using reason, we can contemplate the wonders of creation and begin to recognize the breadth of the infinite power responsible for it. Reason also leads us to understand the limit of human knowledge and how much is beyond our scope. Reason, therefore, can lead to faith. Well-developed reason arrives at the obvious conclusion that reality is far greater than that which we can experience with our senses and our intellect. We come to realize that this reality is not a product of our mind, but that our mind is a product of this reality. Reason may lead us to the door of this reality, but we need different tools to enter.

Scientific reason is often used to explain away faith. Science and faith need not be mutually exclusive. Science is used to explain many things. It makes our lives more comfortable and work more efficiently, but does it explain how to make our lives more meaningful? Science may explain the what and may even explain (partly) the how, but it never explains the why. One can therefore say that secular or scientific reason deals with what the universe is, while spiritual wisdom deals with why it is and what it means.

Faith isn’t always easy. As we wrestle with an uneasy past and an uncertain future, it may seem more comforting to cling to the lives we know. But the thirst for redemption is coupled with another trait that all humans share: hope. Hope for health and prosperity. Hope for justice and virtue. Hope for freedom from the darkness.

Make your home a loving environment, make your office a place where generosity and compassion replace selfishness and aggression. Above all, share these ideas with your family and friends.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah.

Note: this column was almost entirely adapted from the book, Toward a Meaningful Life — The Wisdom of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Simon Jacobson.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Youth – The Fire of Life

A 20-something nephew of mine is passionate about global climate change. “Your generation,” he said to me, “has ignored this global problem that won’t affect you (presumably meaning /Baby-Boomers) so much as it will affect us (meaning Millennials and Generation Z). We’re sick and tired of inaction!”

I don’t take his tirades personally. After all, except for “going green” as far as I’m reasonably able to, I feel powerless to affect the amount of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere by airplane travel, global manufacturing, cattle ranchers and such. Sure, I can install solar panels on my home and not eat a lot of red meat (which I shouldn’t do anyway), but how much will my small efforts reverse melting glaciers?

At least my nephew channels his youthful fire in a positive direction. Young adulthood is odd by nature, nestled between childhood and maturity. Young people begin to experience the frustrations and yearnings of an adult but may lack the experience and wisdom to deal with them.

And it’s not just climate change. The “cause du jour” could be income inequality, health care, acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, immigration reform, or a variety of other maladies we face.

Young people aren’t looking for comfort, rather they’re searching for a meaningful life. They overflow with a mixture of adrenaline and confidence — “I want to change the way the world works.”

Adults, in contrast, burdened with everyday life pressures, may resign themselves to a belief that the world “is the way it is.” We have the knowledge, experience and wisdom but lack the drive. I’m glad that so many young people take up causes.

But sometimes the “political correctness” gets out of hand, so while their causes may be admirable, the methods become self-defeating. We end up with either energy without direction (youth) or direction without energy (adulthood).

Many adults simply throw up their hands, writing a rebellious period off as one that a person will simply outgrow. Young people, meanwhile, often believe that adults have forgotten how to appreciate the very meaning and thrill of life.

Youths are rebellious, while adults view rebellion as an aberration, a youthful exuberance that will fade over mortgage and preschool tuition payments and crushing work deadlines.
After a few decades of non-stop responsibility, however, even adults question the meaning of life. Is this all there is?

I’ll tell you from my recent mid-life health scare I’ve reassessed things. It’s easy to fall into the trap of nurturing our careers through non-stop work and our physical needs with diet and exercise but forgetting to nurture our souls. What’s our purpose? How shall we carry it out?

Thus, the sound of youthful rebellion is the sound of energy crying out, searching for an audience. For adults, the challenge is to help turn that cry into a strong, sure voice. “Yes,” we must tell our young citizens, “take that energy and do try to change the world for the better. Don’t accept the status quo! Don’t tolerate injustice!”

Can we foster this in our estate plans? Surely we can!

There are several methods available to all, from establishing a private foundation to funding a donor advised fund within an existing public or community foundation. As an example, assume that you have a $1 million IRA account that you’d like your family to use to promote good in the world. You consume the IRA during life but then direct it to the foundation upon your death.

If that IRA were cashed out to your children or grandchildren almost half might be lost to federal and state income taxes depending upon the rate of withdrawal and your beneficiaries’ marginal tax brackets. If instead it was left to a qualified charitable entity where your family could direct charitable distributions, very little or none of it would be lost to taxes.

I wrote last week that the baby boomers will leave an astonishing $68 trillion to their loved ones over the next few decades. Imagine how much good in the world even 1% ($680 billion) could accomplish. It’s staggering. I feel a tremendous sense of pride that as a board certified estate planning attorney, I can help my clients feed the souls of their youthful offspring, and reawaken idealistic yearnings of their middle aged children.

As for my nephew and global warming? While I’m not an advocate for global carbon taxation, mainly because I believe the money would be lost to government corruption, I’m largely optimistic that the scales have tipped. There’s now enough money at stake to encourage entrepreneurs and private enterprise to create solutions we haven’t dreamt of yet.

But I’m glad my nephew is vociferously advocating. I encourage young people to continue to hold adults’ feet to the fire! And I also believe that the money will be there to fund solutions to many world problems so that our generation will leave the world a better place than it was when we were born into it.

How will your estate plan nourish your soul and those of your loved ones?

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Millennial Millionaires

According to a report by Coldwell Banker, there are 618,000 millennial millionaires (born between 1981-1996)  in the United States, and they’re set to inherit even more wealth from their baby boomer (1946-1964) parents.

This “Great Wealth Transfer” will see an estimated $68 trillion passed down from the boomers over the next 30 years. It’s estimated that by 2030, millennials will be many times richer than they are today.

“While the inheritance component is hard to quantify with the current data available, there are still many millennials who are not considered wealthy today, but will be in the future,” the report stated.

In fact, 66% of millennials think they’ll become wealthy one day, even though they have an average net worth of less than $10,000. Even more alarming, those currently of that age have only seen a $29 income increase when adjusted for inflation over their young adult counterparts in 1974.

Millennials’ income hasn’t kept up with their skyrocketing student debt or with housing and medical costs — which over several decades now greatly outpace inflation.

Even so, Paul Donovan, chief global economist of UBS Wealth Management, believes that millennials will be the wealthiest generation ever. Because the millennial generation is smaller than the boomer generation they’re inheriting from, he said, transferred wealth will be more concentrated. It isn’t uncommon for boomers to have two or three siblings. Many millennials, in contrast, are either the only child or have just one other sibling.

“From a big picture viewpoint, millennials will likely receive the greatest wealth transfer in modern history…however, the reality is that the baby boomers are healthier and living longer than even they planned, so that wealth transfer might not happen for 20-plus years.” Donovan adds.

So what are our takeaways from this data?

Anecdotally from my estate planning practice my clients of the Silent Generation (1928-45) and those who are Baby Boomers don’t necessarily want to wait until they die to leave family wealth down the line. They’d prefer to see their children and grandchildren enjoy benefits now.

But how is this best accomplished? Each family’s goals and desires, including the attributes of the potential recipients, leads to their uniquely right answer. Getting there is a process, however.

I usually begin by asking some pointed questions. “What would you like to see your family wealth accomplish?” As an example, education might be the most important element for those clients adhering to the philosophy of “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Once it’s decided, the vehicle used to transfer that wealth is considered. This presents additional questions.

Going further with my education example, “How do you accomplish your goal when one grandchild is near university age but another is still in infancy?  Who decides how the resources are invested prior to the transfers? How do you minimize income taxes? Who decides how much each beneficiary is entitled? Contrast, for example, the beneficiary who attends Harvard as opposed to one enrolled at FGCU.”

A successful plan thinks through the answers to these questions and more.

Aside from education, there might be a variety of other reasons to transfer wealth now. But once transferred, “Are we concerned that one of your beneficiaries gets divorced and loses amounts that you earmarked for her?”

Some families hope to provide a retirement safety net for their loved ones, especially since company pensions from lifetime employment are largely relics from the past. “I’d like my children to continue to work and earn their own way,” a client says, “but I want to provide them a comfortable safety net. I want their retirement to include a roof over their heads and adequate health care.”

Here, different strategies are employed. It might involve purchasing long-term care insurance for the adult child beneficiary, or establishing a trust that doesn’t pay income currently, rather it accumulates income until the beneficiary reaches retirement age. When irrevocable trusts accumulate income, however, there is a compressed federal income tax rate schedule that result in higher taxes. Consequently growth rather than income strategies are called for.

Providing written direction to the trustee within the trust document is critical to success.

For those families that might encounter federal or state estate taxes, additional issues arise. While current federal exemption amounts shield more than $11 million, the next election may adversely affect the law. Even without a change in 2020, the current estate tax laws sunset in 2025 absent new legislation.

Families with a potential estate tax problem generally should not transfer assets dollar-for-dollar. In other words, it’s not wise to fund a trust with $500,000 in cash or investments since you’ll use $500,000 of your estate tax exemption. Here you want to employ strategies where you might transfer $2 million of value but only use $500,000 of your estate tax exemption.

By and large, these are good problems to have. I have millennial children who are just starting out to make their way in the world. Some financial struggles aren’t necessarily bad. But assuming enough resources, I would like to build a safety net for them that I never had.

One thing’s for certain. At least as far as my family is concerned, the millennial news articles are right. I won’t inherit anything from my parents, nor my wife from hers. Whatever we leave our children will be more than what we received.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Saints or Sages

During the holiday season it’s not just children who put forward their best behavior in hopes that Santa Claus delivers great bounty. The rest of us tend to reflect on our life’s journey. We try to be more considerate, patient and kind, while also being less judgmental of those around us.

We try to be more “saintly” don’t we?

Which got me thinking about what a saint really is. Is it the utmost in morality? I’m not sure that it is when you examine sainthood closely. Sainthood is individual in nature. In most major religions, a saint is a person of extremes. He is defined as loving kindness towards all. He lives in a world of self-denial, in that he doesn’t seek material rewards or outside praise.

A saint’s understanding of moral life is to give everything away to others in need. The saint may give all his money to the poor. But in so doing, what has the saint done to his own family? They suffer because of his extreme self-denial. A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about the saint’s country and its defense? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him, at the expense of law and justice.

Saints are supremely virtuous people, yet you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Indeed, saints aren’t really interested in society. They have chosen a different, lonely self-segregating path.

Contrast this against a “sage” or “prophet”. When watching the news we see all sorts of people who claim to prophesize about our coming destruction. These are today’s moral guardians. Their interest is in society at large as opposed to individual virtue.

We are told that we have lost our moral compass. Our prophets lament inequality, be it racial, religious, ethnic or monetary. Our modern day sages cry that the earth is dying beneath our feet, yet we continue to spew greenhouse gases, eat meat, and throw plastics into the waters such that one day soon we will be able to walk across trash stretching from Japan to California.

A true sage is a different kind of person altogether, different than a saint. She follows the way of moderation and balance.

She avoids the extremes of cowardice on the one hand by speaking out about today’s wrongs and injustices, yet isn’t reckless about it, and thus acquires the virtue of courage. She avoids miserliness in one direction, prodigality in the other, and instead chooses the middle way of generosity.

The sage understands the twin dangers of too much and too little, excess and deficiency. She weighs the conflicting pressures and avoids extremes.

The saint and the sage are not just two types of people but rather two different ways of understanding moral life itself. Is a moral life to achieve personal perfection? Or is it to create gracious relationships and a decent, just and compassionate society? Can one have both?

I recently attended a conference where attorney Stan Miller explained that there will likely be the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in the next twenty years or so unlike anything previously encountered throughout history. What are we to do with this wealth? Will our estate plans help heed our prophets’ warnings to correct society’s wrongs? Is that not saintly to do so within your estate plan?

What are the causes most important to you? How will your legacy work to promote those issues? Will it be through those you have raised or taught? Or will you leave generous amounts to those willing to raise the flag after your time here is done?

Are you the saint who heeds the prophet’s warning? Or are you the prophet looking for saints to help your cause?

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Double Whammy

Who we name as our agent under a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) document is more than important, it’s vital to our financial, legal and tax well-being. I engage in serious conversations with my clients about who they should name in the important roles of Trustee and Durable Power of Attorney.

Typically, DPOAs are not used unless the person who created it is incapable of conducting her own financial affairs, although the document is legal and valid at the time that it’s signed.

I’ve had several conversations with clients about the importance of selecting the proper person to act. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that some clients name their eldest son or daughter simply because they are the oldest and would be offended if they’re not named in this important role. Sometimes that same oldest child has no business acting as a DPOA since they’re not responsible with money, not responsive, or for a variety of other reasons.

Most importantly, you never want to give legal authority over your legal and financial affairs to someone who’ll take advantage of you. Most of us trust our children, but a recent case demonstrates what can go wrong.

Mary Ellen Nice, a resident of Louisiana, granted a DPOA to her son, Chip. She did this after her husband of sixty-one years died. A few years after granting Chip the DPOA, Mary Ellen slid into Alzheimer’s, after which time Chip exploited his mother financially, diverting her income (largely from Individual Retirement Account (IRA) distributions) for his own personal use. Chip filed his mother’s tax returns, and paid her income tax from her funds even though the monies he withdrew from the IRAs were not largely used for mother’s care but for his own.

The IRA distributions went into Mary Ellen’s checking account, but because she had Alzheimer’s, Chip controlled that account. He had the authority to sign her checks. Unfortunately, many of those checks were to him or were payments for his benefit and not hers.

Upon discovering Chip’s malfeasance, Mary Ellen’s daughter Julianne filed an action in Louisiana Court to remove Chip. She also filed amended tax returns seeking a refund of over $519,000 on the theory that Mary Ellen didn’t benefit from the IRA distributions, rather her son did.

Julianne relied on a prior case, Roberts v. Commissioner of the IRS, where an ex-spouse stole IRA distributions on similar facts but the taxpayer was found not to have received the income. In Roberts the IRA distributions went into a joint account with the taxpayer controlled by the ex-spouse.

Mary Ellen Nice’s court rejected the argument. While it seems completely unfair to tax someone on funds they arguably never benefited from, the US District Court in Louisiana found the theft of Mary Ellen’s IRA amounts to be irrelevant and the evidence regarding the theft inadmissible at trial. The court reasoned that the IRA distributions were paid to Mary Ellen’s checking account, so what happened thereafter is irrelevant. The decision did not discuss whether a theft loss deduction would be permitted.

Theft losses, incidentally, will not reduce the tax dollar for dollar.

The court differentiated Mary Ellen’s case from Roberts because the monies went into Mary Ellen’s individual account, this despite the fact that she had Alzheimer’s and was at the mercy of her son, Chip. The Court also reasoned that Chip didn’t steal all of the income, as some parts were used for Mary Ellen’s care.

The lesson learned is that sometimes you can’t even trust your own children. Trusts and DPOAs are vehicles used to avoid the expense and time related to court supervision over our personal legal, tax and financial affairs. But because there is no court supervision, fraud is much easier to commit. Be sure that the parties you name to help you when you are most vulnerable will only have your interest at heart, and not their own.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

More Power to You

Do good deeds lead to personal strength?

I recently attended the Bat Mitzvah of Yiftach Levy’s oldest daughter Hadarya in San Diego. Yiftach is the man who selflessly donated his bone marrow to save my mother’s life twice from acute myelodysplastic leukemia. She died almost four years ago, but Yiftach’s extraordinary generosity added eleven years to my mother’s life, allowing her to attend the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and celebrations of all five of her grandchildren.

Because my mother couldn’t be there for Hadarya’s big day, I wanted to be there. I also brought my father.

Upon concluding Hadarya’s Torah reading the congregation shouted out a congratulatory phrase “Yasher Koach!” as candy was tossed in her direction as is customary.

A friend of Yiftach’s family sitting next to me in the congregation inquired what Yasher Koach means. The Hebrew words idiomatically translate to “You’re amazing—more power to you!” although the literal translation is closer to “may your strength be enriched.”

This seems like an odd way to congratulate someone doesn’t it?

It does, of course, until you understand the nuance found not only in the Hebrew Bible, but what modern social psychology has discovered relative to emotion’s effect on our bodies.

It is said that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets containing the written Torah from God, he smashed them in anger upon witnessing the Israelites dancing around their golden calf. Ancient rabbinical commentary suggests that Moses did not intentionally destroy the tablets, rather his strength waned causing him to drop them.

That same rabbinical commentary states that each tablet was a block of sapphire 6x6x3 handbreaths in size. A handbreath is thought to be 8 centimeters. Since sapphire is four times as dense as water, and water weighs one gram per cubic centimeter, the two tablets supposedly weighed nearly 1,000 pounds!

How could a mortal man carry such weight down a mountain? Moses’ strength is said to have been derived from his interaction with the Almighty, but that strength vanished when he found that in his absence the people he was charged to lead had gone astray.

Regardless whether you believe in biblical accounts, there’s numerous known instances of supernatural strength occurring amongst normal individuals when finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

As but one example, when Anchorage, Alaska resident Bruce Anderson was underneath his Volkswagen repairing it, the vehicle slipped off its jacks, pinning him to the ground. His 17-year-old son, Riley, hearing his father’s cries while realizing help was miles away, ran to the rescue.

With super-human strength, Riley did the amazing by taking the car by the bumper, raising the 2500-pound vehicle off of his father, enabling him to scramble away.

It doesn’t necessarily take extraordinary events to enable exceptional strength. Sometimes even simple deeds work. According to fascinating experiments in social psychology completed by Kurt Gray and his colleagues at Harvard University, good deeds and thoughts are potent triggers of physical power.

Volunteers were given a dollar and told to keep it or donate it to charity. The decision made, each was asked to hold a weight for as long as they could. Surprisingly, those who had done a good deed were able to bear the load for almost ten seconds longer than the others. In a follow-up experiment, even thinking about doing good increased their physical stamina after the fact.

In this season of Thanksgiving, consider what good deeds you might accomplish. It might be as simple as inviting someone who doesn’t have a place to share the holiday. Perhaps it’s writing a check to your favorite charitable cause or doing yardwork for someone not able to do it for herself.

There are countless ways that you might help someone in the coming days, weeks and months.

And when you do, there might not be anyone there to encourage you to gather the strength to continue. To do more.

So know this — upon completing your charitable task, think of me shouting out to you,  “Yasher Koach!”

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Reality TV

What do Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions and Valentine’s Day all have in common? Some of you are fortunate enough to look forward to and enjoy these lifetime events.

For the rest of us, however, who feel a pang of dread or nervousness, what do you suppose is at the root of your emotion?

If you ask this question to any psychologist, they’ll probably tell you that holidays, events, and family gatherings are all kindle that could ignite combustible situations into full-on emotional fires.

Our own memories recall crushed hopes for some; lifelong slights bubble to the surface in others.

There’s a certain expectation that comes with holidays and special events isn’t there? We envision a Norman Rockwell painting but sometimes end up with Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne-like catastrophes worthy of the strangest and most embarrassing reality television show episodes.

The unrealistic expectation is what does us in.  We envision an unlikely picture rather than approach holidays and gatherings with a realistic expectation of what is likely to be. We fail to prepare ourselves to remember to take deep breaths and not overreact when the inevitable disappointment arises.

Hence the pain.

Expectations surrounding family finances and estate plans are no different. I can’t tell you the number of times that, prior to a catastrophic event such as a heart attack, stroke, or even death,  Mom and Dad haven’t discussed their finances with their adult children beneficiaries, who often anticipate unrealistic inheritances.

Along those same lines, parents don’t want to be a “burden” to their children, but fail to discuss financial situations prior to needing nursing or assisted living care. If only everyone discussed the need prior to the crisis, appropriate legal and financial planning could have saved the family tens of thousands of dollars.

In our culture, discussing finances is taboo.  Parents aren’t open to the discussion, usually for any number of reasons including pride, embarrassment, a desire to not be a financial burden, or to avoid entitled relatives from seeking handouts.

Not only do families avoid lifetime finance discussions, rarely will Mom and Dad reveal the contents of their estate plan ahead of time.

Perhaps they don’t want to have difficult conversations resulting from their decisions, such as naming a gatekeeper trustee on a spendthrift son’s inheritance or giving him less than his siblings because he enjoyed so much more in the form of lifetime gifts. Other times clients don’t wish to reveal their true net worth to their children. Yet in other situations Mom and Dad, with good reason, delay their adult children’s inheritance for a surviving spouse in a second marriage who is not the biological parent of the children.

Expectations also surround the roles that Mom and Dad assign. “I thought I was the logical choice to be the trustee to administer Mom’s affairs,” eldest son points out when he learns youngest sister has been named to fill that role.

Certainly, Mom and Dad have the absolute right to bequeath their hard-earned assets and money in ways and amounts that they see fit. Whenever a client directs me to draft a plan with what I perceive to be unusual provisions, I’ll ask for his thought process to document the file.

Most of the time the explanation justifies the direction.

When the bomb drops, however, especially when it’s only days after Mom died, which is itself an emotional time, I brace for the emotional fallout.

What’s the answer? One answer is to develop a lasting relationship with a qualified estate planning attorney who’s been through these types of situations dozens, if not hundreds of times. Practice does count here.

Rather than view your estate plan as a once-a-couple-decade transaction, instead develop a sense of its fluidity and continuity with your family, ever-changing finances and tax laws. Ask the emotional questions during the planning process. Determine how to best frame your plan amongst your loved ones to minimize unrealistic expectations.

A well thought-out estate plan is as much of an art as it is a science.

And enjoy that upcoming wedding, holiday or family reunion. Be mindful of your reactions and do your best to relish the presence of your loved ones. It’s rarely all Norman Rockwell, but it won’t be too bad if you have an America’s Funniest Home Video moment either.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.