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Picnic Table Wisdom

What can you do now to avoid the bitterness that can divide a family for generations?

As we slowly emerge from the fog of COVID-19, the shackles of masks and isolation and shelter-in-place have been loosened. The effectiveness of vaccines has been proven, and they are safe in most individuals. Complacency can kill us so we need to be aware of the emergence of mutations, but, overall, we can clearly see that light at the end of the tunnel we have been searching for during these long months of the plague year.

With a continuing abundance of caution, several of our family members from outside our bubble met at a local park just to catch up on life—weddings, graduations, illness, success, and, of course, some setbacks. And one of these stories was especially painful.

“Rosie” (to preserve confidentiality) is a gregarious woman and now a widow in her early sixties. She works at a bakery in a nearby city and would typically punch in at the ungodly baking hour of 3:00 a.m. and finish her shift twelve hours later. It is grueling work especially for someone with arthritis and some other health issues. But the family gathering was not about her issues but about what happens if we do not do our legal homework.

It has now been several weeks since her husband died from an intestinal cancer, and she is still reeling from the ordeal of his passing and from the grind of just getting through the turmoil of life. Her husband was among the 70 percent of individuals who die without a will and who never have advance directives (sometimes also called a living will) indicating their wishes about end-of-life care. Since he has passed away, the advance directive is no longer an issue, but the will and distribution of property came to the forefront of Rosie’s life, amid the rest of her profound loss.

Ralph (of course, not his real name) worked for the local park and rec department maintaining recreational facilities, basketball and tennis courts, and softball diamonds throughout their small Minnesota town. He was a “good guy” who was revered and recognized by the entire community. He also could fix just about anything and passionately restored an antique truck, which he kept in a garage he rented from a local farmer. The "man cave" was heated, meticulously outfitted with all sorts of tools, gimmicks, and gadgets, and the truck was proudly displayed at community parades such as Fourth of July celebrations and Labor Day festivities. Ralph drove and Rosie was by his side.

As Ralph’s disease progressed, Rosie and the family were consumed with his well-being, hospital stays, a bewildering number of specialty outpatient consultations, and then the complexities of hospice and bedside management. As is often the case, there was little attention paid to legal and estate issues. But then everything changed.

Nothing Was Written Down

One adult nephew came to Rosie after Ralph’s death and proudly stated that Ralph wanted him to take the truck as a sign of their affection and relationship. This was fine with Rosie because she had no interest in maintaining the truck. But then another adult nephew surfaced, and he said that Ralph had promised him the truck. Of course, nothing was documented, nothing was written down, and the rancor and the bitterness was palpable especially as arrangements were made for Ralph’s funeral.

Each of the nephews was sincere that he was the rightful inheritor of the restored relic, and this shredded the soul of Rosie who wanted to do the right thing and honor Ralph’s wishes. The bitterness reached a crescendo at a viewing prior to the internment where this divisiveness turned into a very public display of bad behavior.

Everyone is an expert on Monday morning. The Monday morning quarterback is always a genius. If Ralph had written down his wishes about who would get the truck, this acrimony could have been avoided. Not only was the truck profoundly symbolic of Ralph’s skill and expertise, but its value was considerable, so here we have the perfect storm of a truck with great emotion of value and a truck with sizable monetary value.

What Can You Do Now to Avoid This Issue?

Consider what might happen upon your own death. What assets do you need to protect, distribute, share, and discuss? What documents do you need to fill out and sign to protect your loving “Rosie” from a Solomon’s choice? What can you do to avoid the bitterness that can divide a family for generations?

As a union organizer once shared with me, “If you do not have a seat at the table, you become the menu.” Rosie did not have a seat at the table with this decision (it was Ralph’s decision, and he didn’t make it), and she now struggles with the grief of the loss of her partner compounded by the grief of the loss of part of her family—over a truck.

Her story, shared across a picnic table in a park that Ralph once pruned and primped as lovingly as he restored his vintage truck, is a lesson for us all. Pay attention, do your homework.

[As a guide, I direct you to my book titled Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions. In it I discuss making that final farewell at the bedside, and I also discuss the documents you need to help the medical professionals (advance directive) and your family (wills, trusts, writing down your wishes) navigate life after death—yours.]

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