Estate Planning: Do Let This Happen to You

Estate Planning: Do Let This Happen to You

The lockdown has given us a chance to catch up with old friends and relations, and even hermetic business writers have taken the opportunity.

Last week, I spoke to Olga, a distant cousin who I played with as a child. Our extended family was Greek enough to see potential marriage mates, but we ourselves were sufficiently Americanized to recoil. Third or fourth cousins may be legal, but to Olga and me, it was just plain creepy.

Olga was Uncle Vasily and Aunt Althaia’s only child. Nominally of good Constantinople Greek stock, they nevertheless managed to divorce rather late in life, causing a scandal, though no real tragedy – this was America, after all, not the old country. Althaia sadly drifted a bit from Olga’s life, concentrating on her new family. Uncle Vasya stayed firm, keeping Olga front and center.

He was always ready to help. Olga’s choices sometimes confounded him: he was a chemistry professor at a solid Massachusetts university, but his daughter went for finance. Not commerce, a sound Greek invention, but shares and bonds, later mergers and acquisitions, cockamamy Protestant ways. Uncle V wasn’t so sure, sometimes, but he’d always say: “If your mind is set, I’m with you.” It was a matter of the heart. Olga made her own money, but it was more fun, she said, if dad was along for the ride. Uncle Vasily passed away right before the holidays. Olga inherited his estate, nothing colossal, but a tidy collection of assets. Professors aren’t big earners, but Vasily, who took his degree on the GI Bill after the Korean War, came into academia at a time of exceptional economic growth. Every summer term, he’d get some grant, funded by chemical companies or the oil industry for basic research or advanced product development. It was a nice little deal, he said.

Massachusetts Greeks, in the local parlance, like to make the buck talk. In the 1960s, Uncle V bought property in Alaska for peanuts – worth plenty, today. He bought land in Texas ahead of the curve, was good at spotting light-blue chips about to deepen shade, kept his financial house balanced and humming. Olga didn’t know much, as her father lived modestly, but when he passed, the story came out.

Uncle Vasily was something of a model citizen for estate planners. He kept tight, accurate records. Property deeds, portfolio accounts, transaction records, tax receipts covering decades on both income and assets – everything, neat and orderly. His life insurance was always paid up, right to his death. Vasily should have switched from term into permanent earlier on, I think, but he never asked my opinion. Still, he covered the bases.

His will was simple, and he kept it updated – he’d seen post-mortem battles among his friends’ families and wanted no hocus-pocus when he wasn’t there to sort things out. Vasily had a power of attorney assigned when that wasn’t so common: people used to trust their families more, but Vasily had seen what he’d seen. “Keep things wrapped up,” was among his maxims, and I never quite caught the drift, until now. Olga explained it all.

Last year, Olga faced some trouble. In the way of investment bankers, she got herself fired for completing a tough, tangled deal. In that red-hot realm, successful colleagues are objects of envy, simmering threats, potential assassins – don’t call it hyperbole, that’s just what Olga said. Out the door she went, not so concerned: jobs are a dime a dozen for proven dealmakers.

That is, unless a pandemic strikes. You’d think a wily I-banker would have plenty socked away. Olga’s earned plenty, it’s true, but you know how it goes.

If you’ve ever seen the old movie Holiday Inn (the stage revival, lacking the regrettable blackface number, might be better to consult), starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, you’ll remember the character Lila Dixon, who broke Fred’s heart – come to think of it, I think she did in both of them. Lila ran off with a rich ‘Texan from Texas’, shedding her dancing shoes to live in oil-fired comfort. Alas, Lila’s denouement was not so genteel: her ten-gallon ticket “owed” millions, rather than “owned.”

Olga wouldn’t mess with Texas, as they are, shall we say, too un-Orthodox, but she did have a messy affair with the leverage man. Still mourning her father, Olga faced a depleted portfolio, hectoring debts, a Boston-sized mortgage, and few prospects for employment. Olga saw the burnished sword swinging her way – Greeks really talk this way, when the village catches fire.

A Greek tragedy was shaping up for my cousin. But wait now: just what had her father done? There was a cash life insurance payment and a moderate annuity. Olga said they seemed paltry at first, compared to her usual, heady standards. In the desperate months, though, dad’s largess helped pay her mortgage, kept feta on the table, prevented a panic sale of good real estate. In a few months, Olga should be fine, but today, her father’s foresight is keeping her afloat.

Vasily’s estate planning records offer important insights. At his divorce, he promptly removed Althaia’s name from all assets, retitling everything. Not out of bitterness, but she’d made her choice and Olga was now first in line: this thinking was clear from correspondence with his lawyer. Vasily clearly understood the maxims of fiduciary responsibility. Emotions must have been high, but you’d never notice it. Olga’s future was at stake.

A respectable professor of apparently moderate means, Vasily had kept his feet off his desk. The economy rushed ahead, and he acted. He sought out expert advice, built life-long relationships with his insurance agent, real estate brokers and his local banker. He established an annuity when that wasn’t the thing. Vasily was always thinking ahead.

When he was older, Uncle V’s best friend was a Turkish man who ran a coffee shop in Boston – we took a strong cup together a few times. The old wars are done, Vasily said, “and this is a good man.” A New World brings new thinking, but the old Greek wisdom still works like it did around the Golden Horn. As old as the empire, the first goal of business is this: protect your family.

Olga’s a bit embarrassed at her predicament; why was I so careless, she laments. Look on the bright side, I countered: your father’s spirit is beyond this universe, but he’s still taking care of you. Allow him the privilege, Olga, old sweetheart.

I’ve never seen an investment banker weep, but discernable snuffles came down the line. Olga is a very smart girl, Uncle V endlessly observed, “but I’m still looking out for her.” That put rather a warmer light on dull-old estate planning, we can agree. Oh, come on now, here’s a tissue.

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