Monday, April 21, 2014

Relatives vs. Family

Estate planning essentially answers who and what questions.  Who will be in charge when you are either to sick to act or have died, and what will happen to your assets.  One of the top five questions clients pose during meetings is "can I name someone other than a family member?"  Without hesitation, my answer is "yes, it is about taking control, name who is right for the job."  What follows is a discussion of the skill set needed to be an agent under a power of attorney for health, or finance, or a personal representative for a will.  However, before we get to that discussion I encourage you to pause and ask -- who is your family?

Asked to define family, I would say they are the people who share your life.  They are there for celebrations, for mourning, and the mundane.  On the other hand, relatives share your DNA or a branch on a family tree. Sometimes relatives can also be family, but not always.  Before instinctively naming your brother or an aunt in a role, ask yourself -- are they family, or just a relative?  If the later, look to someone who falls into the category of your family instead.

How do you tell the difference?  Here are a few points to ponder -- what makes someone family, at least in my book:

  • you have shared a meal together in the past year;
  • after major surgery they have helped you with getting dressed and or transported home;
  • if you have young children, they have spent time in that child's bedroom playing;
  • you communicate with them in person, on the phone, or via email once a month.  Facebook and other social media do not count;
  • if you have a pet they have cuddled the animal or if not a pet person, shooed the critter away; or
  • when life gives you a joy or sorrow, this is a person you reach out to to share.

It is my experience that far too many people equate relationships recognized in state statute as being the same as family.  This week I will lean on my own advice -- it is one in which we will pay tribute to my mother, who's earthly life ended in February.  Reminding myself to focus my energies and efforts on the family who walked by my side, sent words of support, dropped off meals, or watched our young children so I could have a few final hours at my mom's side.  On the periphery will be relatives, sadly ones with requests harboring on the edge of being demands.  They appear unable to understand that the phrase "the immediate family" is not a status automatically granted to those who share DNA or a last name, but rather to those who share a life. At least in my opinion.

Be well, and thank you for reading.  Please remember, a blog is not legal advice -- seek the advice and counsel of an attorney licensed in your home state.

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