“If you aren’t happy with the result . . .

. . . it means we are not done yet.”

I’m paraphrasing a sentiment from a recent movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011). As much as I’ve read quite a collection of books on aging and mid-life change over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed there is a growing list of movies designed for this same population.

Here is a list of five movies I’ve seen with story lines about people who are all in their middle years or older:

  1. The Bucket List (2007), Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson
  2. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), Judy Dench, Bill Nighy, . . .
  3. Love Punch (2013)  Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson
  4. Last Vegas (2013) Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline
  5. Begin Again (2013) Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightly

What all these movies have in common is that the main characters are aging and each of them must find a way to deal with the changes aging brings. Some characters handle the circumstances of age by fighting it or denying it. They run from age and getting older and wind up learning that you can’t deny or avoid the truth. Age is what it is. You can run in fear or you can try to live where you’re at and accept yourself and your place in this world and find joy in that.

Other characters find themselves in mid-life with grown children or even grandchildren and seem somehow surprised that 20, 30, or 40 years have flown by and seem to be asking themselves, “what happened . . . to my youth?”

Something that I like about the variety of characters and story lines contained in these movies is that I get a sense that the writers are taking more time to explore this idea of aging. Certainly there are people out there who are just plain angry they can’t do what they used to do the way they used to do it. But there is more to aging than a single emotion.

I’m no fan of my own personal mid-life “spread” — right through my middle. I can’t ride a bike as far or swim as long as I used to when I was 20 years younger. But I still enjoy riding and swimming. I feel like that’s maybe a little bit of what’s going on in these movies too.

These people find themselves in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s and just like when they were younger, they’re still just trying to figure life out, find their way a little bit at a time.  Just because we’re older and have more life experience doesn’t mean we’ve got it all figured out. We don’t. But we do have a few more things figured out than we did when we were 20.

What trends in other media do you see? Have authors or magazines developed in a new direction as you’ve followed their work over time? Has a favorite singer or song writer come out with a new album that features a new point in their life?

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What Makes Family?

This past weekend we went to my dad’s 80th birthday party. I met a cousin I’d never known and visited with another I haven’t seen in more than 20 years.

Yesterday morning a life long friend called me and we talked about family and friends, some still with us and some already gone. One thing we both appreciate about our 40-year friendship is that we know we can always count on each other.

Last night my husband helped #1Son start figuring out summer employment ideas before heading off to college, while I made sure #2Son had the correct charger plug and cable for his iPad.

This morning I chatted with a friend of just 15 years. I truly appreciate this gal, because she is sassy and forthright, sort of like my sister was.

All these little snippets bring me back to the opening question: what makes family?

Blood is certainly one way one makes a family, marriage another. I like to think that shared history and experiences can also forge those bonds.

There are times I’ve lived through with friends that have been so significant and deeply important that in the aftermath, there is no other answer than that person is my brother or sister.

Since Dad’s party several days ago, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the concept of family, what that means, and the curious notion that sometimes those bonds are hugely strong between people who grew up together and other times between people we meet along the way.

The family I grew up in was one of three distinct possibilities. I am adopted and my birth parents did not stay together. So, I could have grown up in my parent’s household, with my birth parents (had they stayed together), or with my birth-mother (and the man she eventually married).

Because I absolutely adore my husband and sons, I would never trade my life, from beginning to end, for anything. All the people and experiences that have come and gone have added up to me meeting Les in May 1988, and the rest became our history.

The family I grew up in is largely gone. It’s just Dad and I left and we’re not close. We love each other, but there are just some times when the best you can do is take a step back, stay in touch, share what you can, and let God take care of the rest.

The family my kids are growing up in is small but old. Les’ sister traced the Heen family tree back to the year 600 AD. There are no oodles of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who gather at the holidays. We are honest with each other. We yell sometimes and laugh a lot. My kids know that no matter what, no matter where or when, they can count on us.

For me, that’s the most important part. The people I count as family are those I can count on no matter what.

What makes family for you?

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How do you beat the mid-winter blahs?

As much as I would love to jump on a plane and fly off to the tropics, I need to find ways to beat the blahs much closer to home, in the north, the cold, snowy, blowy north.  It’s still a great question.  How do YOU beat the mid-winter blahs? I’ll bet your first answer is NOT “I’m going to do my estate planning!” Maybe it should be.

One thing I love about winter is that I am forced to spend a lot of time inside. These quieter times let me think about what I want to do during the year ahead, in the warmer weather months, in my law practice, and with my family. I do a lot of puttering and organizing in the winter. It’s a great time to clear out cluttered cupboards and closets and neaten things up a bit.  I also tend to make lists and figure out sets of instructions so that when the time comes to charge ahead, we know what we’re doing.

When the time comes for your family to step in and help you, will they know what to do? Is there a set of instructions written down that tells them exactly

  • who will stand up for you?
  • who will speak for you when you can’t?
  • who will take care of your affairs if you’re unable to do it yourself?

If you have created this most important set of instructions, is it stored somewhere that’s safe yet easily accessible by the people you’ve chosen to help you?

Whatever you choose to do to beat the winter blahs, have fun with it. Drink some cocoa, organize a closet, or take a vacation. If you do choose to write a few instructions for your family, give me a call. I’d be happy to listen to your ideas, offer some guidance, and hopefully create a plan that will work for you and your family.


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An Attitude of Value

I wrote in my last post that we need to change our thinking about estate planning.  Instead of considering estate planning in terms of your own death, fear-filled and full of finality, ask yourself, “How do I want the people and things I value to continue living when I am gone?” If you’ve ever sold or transferred a business, you’ve worked with these ideas before.  Estate planning really has more to do with life than death.  The idea that partners this concept is that we must have an attitude of value about our lives and living, rather than a sense of fear of the unknown and our own deaths.

The things most commonly valued can be loosely thought of in three categories — your people, your stuff, and your community. You can build strategies into your estate plan that protect, preserve, or promote the people, assets, and community you value most.

The people you value. The people that mean the most to us are usually our spouse, children, family members, and friends. As a means of protecting my family in case I am suddenly gone, I might include a life insurance policy in my estate plan so that my spouse and children don’t suffer financial hardship along with my death.

Additionally, I might include terms in my will specifying at what ages my children receive assets from my estate. Stretching out the timing of asset distribution helps me feel more at ease with the notion that while I may no longer be present to teach my children about responsibility and stewardship, receiving assets in stages requires that as they age, they also gain some life experience and wisdom.

The assets you value. Assets people value can be financial, real estate, or objects such as family heirlooms. Different methods are used to transfer these different types of assets. Let’s use the transfer of a family farm as an example and assume there is both money and land included in the planning.

Preserving assets such as money and land has as much to do with good planning and transfer strategies as it does with teaching one’s heirs how to handle the business mechanics of the assets once they are transferred. It isn’t enough to ensure one’s children inherit all one has accumulated during life. One must also spend some time teaching the next generation about how to tend those assets so that they are preserved and can provide benefits as long as possible.

The community you value. Many of us value our communities and the services, organizations, or programs unique to our areas. Maybe you volunteer at the library or help organize a community festival. I’ve tutored literacy, volunteered at church, and given donations to several local organizations. I believe the only way one’s community not just survives but thrives is by becoming involved and taking an active part in those places and programs I believe in. I contribute my time, energy, and money to the programs I think I can help in my own small way. Other people contribute to other organizations and programs and that is how we keep our community lively and robust. It bears considering that before or after one dies, plans can be created to promote a group, program, or organization one feels strongly about.

What do you value? Think about the people, things, and parts of your community that you enjoy. What has brought meaning or pleasure to your life? Using the answers to these questions, it is entirely possible for you to create plans both during life and as part of your estate where you support the people, things, and organizations you love.








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Estate Planning has More to do with Life than Death

Early in my career, a large part of my work had to do with life insurance.  A lot of the sales people I worked with said that an obstacle they continually dealt with was the idea that life insurance relates to people dying and people generally don’t like to talk about death, especially their own.  I come up against that idea a lot in my law practice as an estate planning attorney as well.

My practice is almost exclusively devoted to estate planning and probate.  Estate planning hopefully deals with matters prior to death but face it, probate only comes up after someone has passed.

So how do I get around it?  the discomfort, the squeamishness, the awkward sense that no one willingly discusses these things?

I teach two main ideas.  First, as the title of this article says, estate planning has a lot more to do with life than death.  Second, we must have an attitude of value about our lives and living, rather than a sense of fear of the unknown and our own deaths.  We’ll take a look at this attitude of value in a future post.

Estate planning is about life.  Death is about a single moment in time.  As we live, people (family, friends, co-workers) come and go. We accumulate experiences through family, friends, school, and work. As we grow older, we appreciate family and friends we’ve loved and maybe lost, we gain work experience, accumulate assets, and begin to formulate ideas about the meaning that our lives might have. What’s it all for? Who is it all for? What difference will our life or our life’s work have on our family? our profession? or our community?

We spend our lives creating. As adults, we create our families, careers, and hobbies. We make plans, achieve goals, and then make more plans. Estate planning is simply one more project. When we make plans in other areas of our lives, we set a goal and then make a plan to accomplish the goal. Estate planning is pretty much the same thing. We make plans so that when some triggering event occurs, these other things come into play. So it goes with estate planning. If a triggering event is death, then these other things come into play.  It is entirely possible to create an estate plan through which your assets are transferred in such a way that these questions we ask about value, legacy, and impact are answered.  These answers support people, projects, and community that matter to you.





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Just like a car, the best Estate Plans require Maintenance

Look at that! isn’t she beautiful! We all love the glow of the unmarred, slightly sparkly surface, the shiny hubcaps, the black satin new tires.  Some of us enjoy new car smell, being the first owner, pushing, pulling, and turning knobs and dials for the first time.  What’s not to like about a new car? The joy of anticipating all those future road trips, the wonder of untold future adventures, the vast, amazing, and silly stories shared when we get back home.

Along with buying a new car comes a certain amount of responsibility.  To go anywhere, we need to buy gas and pay for tabs and insurance.  Regardless of your level of mechanical skill, regular maintenance like oil changes, keeping fluids topped, and replacing tires and worn out parts is now an understood expectation.

We see many articles about estate planning and its tools — wills, trusts, power of attorney, and health care directives. Professional advisers of various stripes tell us we need to make sure we’ve got these documents set up for ourselves.  They tell us lots of reasons why we should have them, but no one tells us about what happens next.

Once you have established an estate plan for yourself, what do you do now?  Well, just like buying a car, there is a significant initial cash outlay.  Also just like owning a car, once that initial investment is made, regular maintenance is hopefully cheaper and intelligently done.

Traditionally, the long-held idea about estate planning is that once the documents are signed, the job is done. Generally, people don’t like contemplating their own mortality.   Succession planning, post-death transfers, and facing the reality that our time here on earth does have an endpoint is something many people figure they can handle doing once. Considering estate planning as an ongoing endeavor doesn’t sit well with traditionalists.

I offer the following information to provide a bit of perspective on this idea of “traditionalists.”  The Baby Boomer generation in the U.S. consists of those 76 million babies born between the years 1946-1964.  Today, those people are age 50-68 and comprise about 35% of the adult American population.  An often used statistic is that about 10,000 people each day turn 65. [www.prb.org/justhowmanybabyboomersarethere?]

The Baby Boomers came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a time in our history when the young people of our country challenged traditionally held beliefs and ideas.  This is the generation brought us the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the beginnings of economic, medical, and technological advancement that we are still benefiting from today.  The Baby Boomers challenged tradition constantly.

There is a logic to the idea that when one invests what one considers a large amount of resources into an endeavor, that one is likely interested in the outcome of that endeavor.  The word “resources” can mean money.  It can also mean time and careful attention to not just accomplishing a goal, but the lasting consequences that are created by achieving that goal.

When one buys a car, they are likely going to ensure that the car is maintained to a certain level so that it runs reliably. When one creates an estate plan, rather than simply locking those papers away in a drawer or placing them in a box in a safe place, consider challenging the traditional assumption that your work here is done.  Estate planning is less about a single moment that marks the end of one’s lifetime and more about creating a plan that carries you through to the end of your days as you wish and then transferring what’s left to others who survive you.

Such a plan requires maintenance. Maintenance for your estate plan means reviewing it periodically. The people you need to help you put your plan into action may change. The assets you have to work with today may change. Your own goals and desires may change.  Rather than waiting to give all the grandkids some amount upon your death, some year, you may wish at Christmas or on birthdays to give that amount to them while you are still around to see them enjoy that gift.  The same goes for treasured items.  Instead of waiting until after you pass, you may wish to bestow family heirlooms to your children or others during life.

Documents created as part of your estate plan also require maintenance. Document maintenance.  Typically, a few of the documents that make up a basic estate plan are a Will, Power of Attorney, and Health Care Directive. If the person (or people) you have nominated to act on your behalf becomes unavailable (because of their own death, medical issues, or you’ve simply changed your mind), you will need to update your plan.

Strategy maintenance. As one’s family grows and changes, strategies used to create one’s estate plan may become outdated. Different strategies come into play as one’s children become adults, get married, and have children of their own. People who are single get married and people who are married may find themselves single again. Periodically reviewing one’s estate plan so that assets transfer along the pathways one intends can be called maintenance, but it is simply prudent.

Regular car maintenance ensures that one’s car runs reliably as well as uncovers parts as they begin to wear out. Replacing parts that are showing signs of wear is usually better than experiencing the surprise of a sudden breakdown.

Regular estate planning maintenance ensures that the goals and ideas you have about your person, possessions, and assets take place as YOU intended. Pulling that plan out of the drawer every so often gives you the opportunity to make sure the people you picked to help make  your plan happen are still who you want to play those roles.  Additionally, surprises like family treasures or assets transferring in ways no longer or never intended are minimized because of regular attention and review of the details.

Just like maintenance of a car, maintenance of an estate plan ensures your plan runs smoothly now and well into the future.


Barbara Heen is an estate planning attorney with offices in Willmar and Maynard. When she isn’t providing planning services to clients, she is likely planning the next great adventure road trip for her family.



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Step One: Name Your Goal

Daily life is about logistics.  The details of our day-to-day are common to all of us.  We need to get to work, make sure the car has gas, get groceries, do laundry, household chores (both inside and out), and attend to all the various details that fill up our lives.  We don’t need much of a plan to handle the typical tasks of our lives . . . or do we?

If we simply live our lives based on running a defense strategy, we react and respond to things as they happen, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room left over in terms of time or energy to do much else.  At the end of a long day at work, several errands on the way home, cooking dinner and cleaning up the kitchen, and maybe folding a load or two of laundry, I’m fairly tuckered out.  How then, does one take up a hobby? go on vacation? finish that room in the basement? or finally achieve that life long goal of taking that extra long trip to that exotic place you’ve always dreamed about?

It seems to me the big goals are achieved purely on the basis of intention.  We need to run a little offense if we’re really going to get control of the game and achieve a few of those larger, tougher goals.

Answering the question, “What do you want to do?” is both deceptively simple and extraordinarily difficult.  Are we talking about what one wants to do today, this week, or even this month?  or are we considering larger issues that take planning, time, and discipline to achieve?

One’s near-term goals are fairly easily accomplished.  Finding the words to effectively state and describe a person’s larger goals is somewhat harder.

I play lots of solitaire and I win a lot of games.  I like playing solitaire because it teaches me that for every riddle or problem, there is an answer no matter how seemingly unlikely when I begin.  When I start a new game, the cards are all mixed up.  After a brief look at the overall spread of the cards, the first card I move is simply a guess.  Yes, I make my start with a simple guess.  My presumption is that I’m going to win the game, but I don’t really know if I will.  I make a start and as the game progresses, the lay of the cards will help me figure out the best order in which to move the cards.

All of us carry dreams and ideas around in our heads.  Once we make a statement, set a goal down on paper and decide that it is something we’re going to do, we’ve moved our first card.  Some goals are going to be easier to figure out how to accomplish than others.  The first step is to literally write your goal down on paper.  What exactly do you wish to do?  Once we have a clear statement of what we want to do, we can begin to make a plan.

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Lessons from a Career in Planning

My work involves helping people understand what they value, create goals related to those assets, and execute plans for the use of those assets. I’ve approached this kind of planning from a variety of angles. All my jobs have related to planning — investments, insurance, accounting, trusts, and finally practicing law as an estate planning attorney.

Having worked with people for more than 25 years, a lot of that time has been spent helping them make financial plans for their mid-lives (age 45-55) and onward through their retirement years (age 55-70 and beyond).  I’ve learned a few things and I’d like to share those lessons here.

Things or ideas.  When you work in planning, people see what you do as either tangible, where they buy a product, be it an insurance policy, a bank CD, a will, or a trust; or as intangible, where they need your help creating a plan or establishing a system whereby their values are reflected in their activities, expenditures, and the legacy they leave others.

Planning doesn’t belong to any particular group or demographic.  People who want to create a plan that stretches from midlife on throughout their retirement years come from all walks of life, all levels of assets.  They value what they’ve accumulated so far in life, whether it’s experience, careers, or assets — financial or otherwise.

Planning is gender neutral.  Men and women both make plans. Many times, one spouse or the other takes the primary role with running the household finances and managing investments and debts.  Either spouse may do more of the cooking, handle chores, childrearing, or volunteer activities.  Everyone has ideas about what they’d like to do when they’re not working (inside or outside the home), whether that’s weekend, vacation, or retirement plans.

The least effective plans are no plans at all.  Some people think that life simply happens and we can’t really effect outcomes.  I disagree.  Most of the time when I or people I talk with are unhappy with a result, it’s because we didn’t do something in advance of the outcome that might have had a chance of affecting that outcome.  I’m not saying that every plan we make is going to work out just the way we want, but you can be sure you aren’t going to accomplish any specific goal by sitting back and letting life happen.

So-so plans come from a more tangible, retail product frame of mind.  Some people consider the tangible item, the insurance policy, investment, will or trust as a permanent representation of their planning efforts.  Once they go through the process of thinking through all the issues, they simply don’t want to go back there again.  They’re done.  This approach ignores the fact that laws, economies, living circumstances, and even families change.

The best plans are made by people who understand our work together only represents a starting point.  This means we figure out what we want to do based on what we know today and write it down. Then we are fully prepared over time to make changes as circumstances, laws, and people shift and change.  The best plans are based on intangible ideas and use tangible tools to execute those ideas.


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What I learned at my momma’s knee

When I was a girl, my parents both worked outside the home.  They were paid on alternating weeks, so every week, there was a paycheck to distribute.  Before kids, mom was a bookkeeper in a bank, so she handled the household finances.  Every Thursday night after supper, mom got out her green wire-bound notebook, 10-key, and a stack of envelopes.  Yes, my mom was Dave Ramsey before Dave Ramsey was cool.

I grew up watching my mom pay the bills, pay off the mortgage, buy cars, boats, the RV that we used up north.  She funded vacations, educations, graduations, and two weddings.  Mom also had a terminal illness.  Eventually, Dad took early retirement to help care for her.  Different decisions had to be made financially, but retiring early didn’t hurt their standard of living.  It might have taken more strategy and thinking than the weekly paychecks, but Mom figured out how to retire Dad early.  And she did it all at the kitchen table with her notebook, 10-key, and envelopes.

Mom always had a plan for the money.  No matter what new funding issue arose, she would simply sit down with her notebook and figure it out.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to buy a car.  I had a full time job, an apartment, and time on my hands.  She asked me if I had a plan, if I knew not only how I was going to buy a car, but also how I was going to cover gas, insurance, and maintenance.  She then laid out a simple idea — take $50 from each paycheck and move it to savings.  Over time, increase that amount so that eventually, the money put to savings would equal or exceed the car payment, gas, etc.  Mom’s little plan for my car worked.  My actual costs worked out to be less than what I was putting away in savings.

Mom’s plan worked throughout my life for other things.  I used mom’s plan to get myself into and through law school, buy a house, even make career changes.

Planning your life, career, future, or even retirement years seems daunting — there’s so much about the future that we don’t know.  But just like my mom, we can tear off smaller chunks and figure things out a bit at a time.

There are four questions that the answers to which will help you plan any goal or endeavor you set before yourself:

1) What do you want to do?

2) Where do you want to do it?

3) Who do you want to spend your time with?

4) How much is this goal going to cost?

Once you tear off a corner off your future and decide to figure out just that one part, answering the above four questions will help you make a plan.  It worked for my mom, it worked for me, and it can work for you too.

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We’re just getting started

A lovely young woman came to my office yesterday to tutor me in the use of a software I had installed on my computer 8 months ago.  For whatever reason, installing the software was harder than it should have been and took more time than I expected.  So, once installation was complete, I pushed actually using it to the bottom of my to-do list.

My thoughts ran along these lines — it was too hard to install, so it must be too hard to use; it took so much time and I didn’t want to spend that amount of time again trying to figure out how to use it; technology, especially software that is supposed to be “user friendly” is too mysterious, there’s so much I don’t know, I’m not sure I can learn this, etc.

A friend recommended I call the young woman and ask her to help me.  After 8 months of avoiding it, I finally made the call.  Lo and behold, she sat at my computer and made about 6 clicks with the mouse and voila! I was in business.  In a similarly short period, she explained the basics of what I needed to know to navigate and become functional within the software.  I asked more questions.  Rather than answer by demonstration, she guided me through keystrokes and mouse clicks so I would know exactly how to find my way.

The girl makes her living teaching others how to function online, on their computers, how to use various softwares, and how to make the various softwares talk to each other.  I’m glad she’s good at her job.  I wouldn’t want it.

I explain this brief encounter because my thoughts and feelings about technology and communications software are steeped in fear of the unknown, feelings of insufficiency, lack of fluency, mystery, and frankly feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what I don’t know, but think I should.  Isn’t that how a lot of people feel about life stages and transitions?  Don’t we all feel like we should know and understand a lot more than we do?

Recently, I heard a catchphrase that has stayed with me.  “When you turn 50, you have half your life in front of you.”  People are living longer, remaining active, continuing to work long past any sort of traditional retirement age of 55, 62, or 65.  Even if they leave their career job, the tendency has become to find or create new and hopefully more interesting ways to spend their time.

My wish is to help people figure out how to approach this next stage of life. Let’s talk about goals, dreams, and hobbies.  Let’s make a plan for your mid-life.  By the time we’re done making your plan, we will have tamed those feelings of fear, strange mystery and that sense of feeling overwhelmed.

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