You might think that as a financial life planner, the saying, "Man Plans and God Laughs" would be totally anathema to my beliefs. The fact is, while planning is vital, aspects of putting your life in order and thinking through the "what if's," it does not assure us of an anticipated outcome. Does this mean we should throw up our hands, tear up our budgets and go merrily into the shopping mall and wherever else life leads us? I submit an emphatic "No!"
The question is: How do you reconcile the fact that even if you work diligently to cover all your financial bases, it just might not work out the way you wanted or expected?
Jake had been a client of mine for many years and I met Shirley several times before they got married. It was a second marriage for both. The each had children and grandchildren from their previous relationships. The planning challenges were ominous. They wanted to take care of each other as well as their respective children and grandchildren. The conversation that attempts to talk about "after I die" is typically fraught with emotion and difficulty.
"I want to be sure my accumulated wealth is there to protect my wife, when I die." Jake said. "But, I don't want Shirley's next husband to have a dime of my money, that son-of-a-bitch!"
Shirley and I both sat up a little straighter at the anger in Jake's words. For the first time since meeting her, Shirley's voice changed from her normally well measured and collected presence. "What," she demanded, "is the logic behind your statement, Jake? What you are saying makes no sense! I am a 72 year old woman. My NEXT husband?"
Her statement hung in the air. Jake looked down at the table, unable to put words to thoughts or even gather a meaningful defense. "Well, we need to plan these things out. We need to make sure everyone is protected."
While there was something slightly crazy about this exchange, there was also something touching and tender hidden behind his bombastic statement. It wasn't about his money; it wasn't about his legacy or even his mortality. Realizing this, Shirley offered back, "Jake, whatever you want to do that will make you more comfortable, I am in favor of. After all, I know how important planning out each aspect is to you." Her words soothed the situation and we agreed that their next step was to work with an Estate attorney to render their wishes into words. Once this was accomplished and he knew he had laid out a plan that took care of everyone, Jake felt at peace. Knowing that he was at peace, Shirley could focus on their bigger, happier family.
Four years later, a month after Shirley's funeral, Jake came to see me. "Michael, I never imagined it would happen like this. After all, I am six years older than Shirley-I've had heart problems, and she was healthy as a horse. I just don't get it. All that planning, and for what?"
I felt sad too. We talked for a moment about her last days, "You know, Jake,"I said, "your planning was what allowed you and Shirley to live these last few years without worry or concern of loose ends or unspoken issues. It allowed you to feel a sense of completion and order. Those are good things."
"Yeah, I guess. But, at the end of it, it didn't mean a thing. Shirley's gone." He could barely say the last words.
"I know, Jake," I said gently. "Try for moment to look at it another way. If Shirley had rejected your concerns, it would have lead to disharmony, fear and an unsettled feeling for you both. By working with you to create these plans, Shirley gave you a most important gift; the ability to put your head on the pillow at night without concern. That's big stuff, Jake."
He shrugged. But underneath the shrug, I know I saw a tiny wry smile.
Can life turn out badly? Sure. But attending to these important issues does create internal comfort. We are able to control very little in our lives. Nonetheless, we feel more complete and in control when we have taken whatever steps possible to alleviate the stresses of uncertainty. Planning provides us with a sense of order, hopefulness and care for ourselves and those we love. While God may indeed get the last laugh, we will, at the very least, have a shot at peace in the meantime. And I think that's something worth working for.