Johnny Cash sings a song that begins, “One day near Christmas when I was just a child, Mama called us together and Mama tried to smile.” Mama said, “You know the cotton crop hasn’t been too good this year. There’s just no spending money and, well, at least we’re all here.” In Johnny’s words, Mama goes on, “I hope you won’t expect a lot of Christmas presents. Just be thankful there’s plenty to eat. That’s quite a blessing that’ll make things a little more pleasant.” The children, Johnny sings, “got to thinking how really blessed we were. At least we were all healthy, and best of all, we had her.”
Johnny Cash died one of the best-selling music artists of all time, but he was born with next to nothing. When he was three years old, he and his family moved to Dyess, Arkansas, part of a New Deal colony that gave poor families a chance to work land that they could eventually own. At the age of five, he started working cotton fields with his family. Whether they had food to eat and money to buy necessities, as they struggled through the Great Depression, depended heavily on the weather – and each other.
A lot of times when we talk about estate planning, we emphasize the need to protect the things we’ve worked for all our lives. That’s part of it, but maybe not the biggest part. If we want to talk about protecting what’s most important in life, the conversation will center on family, not things. We’ll plan because we want to do everything we can to look out for those we’ll leave behind.
Sometimes protecting our family means simply leaving instructions that are crystal clear so that there’s as little room as possible for fights and hurt feelings among those who survive us. I could tell you stories for days about rifts created after the death of a parent, rifts created because there was no clear instruction on what the children were supposed to do next. Death causes emotions to run high, and there’s no way to draft a plan that is completely certain to eliminate any chance of dispute among surviving family members—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Sometimes protecting our family means sheltering the next generation from others who might try to get their hands on what we leave behind. The last thing any of us want is for our children to become targets for creditors, divorcing spouses, or opponents in litigation because of an inheritance recently received. Despite our best efforts, sometimes we can’t keep our heirs out of legal trouble. But we can prevent the inheritance we want to leave them from being sucked into those legal troubles with the right kind of plan.
Sometimes protecting our family means protecting our children from themselves. To put it bluntly, some people simply should not receive an inheritance outright. Johnny Cash would be the first to sympathize with those who may struggle with drugs or alcohol. I imagine he’d understand the struggles of those who just can’t manage money, too, even if there aren’t any substances in the mix. Perhaps even more concerning, even a modest inheritance can jeopardize the government benefits received by a disabled child. There are times when a gift can become a curse. Proper planning may not alleviate the underlying problems our children have, but it can prevent those problems from getting worse as a result of a poorly managed inheritance.
Some folks think people have to have a huge estate before they need to worry about estate planning. I disagree. Anyone who has a family that they care about, that they want to look after, that they want to protect, needs to worry about estate planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it has to be crystal clear. It has to anticipate all sorts of contingencies, and it has to answer questions you might not think to ask on your own.
Johnny Cash’s song reminds us to pause and be grateful for what we have—not so much the material possessions we’ve worked for all our lives, but more so the family that will surround us this holiday season. You can look after them after you’re gone, but it takes intentional planning while you’re living. ν