My grandfather Wafer was a big man. Born in the early 1900s, his 6-foot-3 frame was impressive. “Pop” had clear blue eyes, and stood upright and tall. For most of his life, he was a rancher, at least part-time. Ranching work made him strong, and what he could lift with one hand, others would need two.
In the 1950s, my grandfather became Sheriff of Hill County, Texas. One of those years of serving was the centennial of the County, and as part of the celebration, he grew a beard. That picture of Pop, in his sheriff’s uniform and sporting his beard, hangs on my wall of my office. It is a constant reminder of the many lessons that he taught me.
The remainder of Pop’s working career was in law enforcement (though he continued to ranch). Eventually, he became assistant chief of police of River Oaks, Texas (a suburb of Fort Worth).
Part of his duties included dealing with traffic offenders, as well as other offenses. Pops had a philosophy: he wanted to hear the person’s story. Why did they do what they did? If the person would just listen and Pop felt it appropriate, he would talk with the person about their risky behavior, the dangers that he was exposing him or herself to, and the family depending on that person. If Pops felt the person was really listening to him, and if he thought a lesson was learned, many times he would send the person of their way, without any type of citation.
Pop talked in a deep, slow, methodical voice. When he spoke, you listened, and listened, and listened. Never once did I hear him raise his voice.
I have tried to imagine those instances where he called the offender into the front seat of his patrol car, and he would go on and on with his talk. I am sure that he was judging the person’s character, and how they reacted to his suggestions. Having been on the end of some of those “talks,” I am sure that the offender would be the better for the time spent with my grandfather.
On occasion, I have someone come into my office “seeking my advice,” when in fact, they want me to just confirm their beliefs. They have heard things (there is a lot of law practiced on coffee shops), or read something (probably from the internet which of course never misleads or lies). As a result, they have reached some conclusions.
To be fair, I understand that when it comes to effectively planning with a family for their estate or dealing with a chronic illness, there is a lot involved and people many times do not realize it. In my office, it involves their health and their healthcare. It also involves their family and their family dynamics. It certainly going involves their finances and their insurance products. I need to know all of that information. The planning should not be done in a vacuum.
This is what I try to do. I try to ask the client a series of questions. I want to know the client’s story; I want to know why they are where they are; and then I want to talk about where they want to go and what their goals are. If I can do that with a client, and if then we can have a conversation about my recommendations, I feel like I can help the family. If they are willing to take that time to share with me, then I feel that together through a partnership, we can come up with a great plan.
If they are locked in on some misbeliefs, if they are not willing to share, then I do not feel like I can be very helpful to them, and I prefer to not be involved.
I suppose I have a little bit of my grandfather in me. I want to know the people I am dealing with. I want to know their motivations. I want to know their desires. If we can reach some type of common ground, then I am willing to go forward.
I suggest to you that you should have that relationship with your lawyer, with your doctor, and others that you entrust with your “stuff.” I know it is hard to let go of that information, but I know that when I work with a family, and I can gather all that information in our planning, I feel like I have a much better idea about what we can accomplish.
Pop died in 1984, some 17 years before my grandmother. When I took care of my grandmother, many times I could hear in my head Pops urging me to take care of his bride. It was an awesome responsibility, and a great standard.
The purpose of this article is to encourage you to have a deep, meaningful conversation when putting together your estate plan. I encourage families to not get so hung up on the documents as fulfilling their goals. If you do not find a receptive ear, move to someone else.
Randy Clinkscales founded Clinkscales Elder Law Practice in 1985. He is a 1980 graduate of Washburn Law School and has represented clients at the administrative, county, state and federal levels.