Blended: Elements of Attachment

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin writes about the elements of attachment.  He offers that it is good to be unattached to a specific, inflexible, desired outcome.  He is a proponent of flexibility and rationality.  He warns against having “nostalgia for the future.”  I love what he has to say about this topic:

“The first sign of attachment is that you try to use telekinesis and mind control to remotely control what other people think of you and your work.  We’ve all done this. . . .The second sign of attachment is how you handle bad news.  If bad news changes your emotional state or what you think of yourself, then you’ll be attached to the outcome you receive.  The alternative is to ask, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’  Learn what you can learn; then move on.”

Take, for instance, the way your partner parents his/her children.  There is a 100% chance that the way your partner parents his/her children will diverge, at some point, from the way you parent your children (or from the way you would parent children if you had children).  You may listen to what your partner is saying to his/her children and think, “in what universe would this be a good idea?”  You foresee major issues in a few days, weeks, months, or years when your partner’s child has taken the advice and run with it.  You know that what he/she is saying is problematic, or even just plain wrong.

So you have a couple of options.  One option is to do what several blogs I have encountered recommend: remain silent.

This is a viable option.  In fact, it may not be such a bad idea.  And if you have reached a Zen-master’s level of consciousness in your personal life and are able to allow bad advice to be doled out in your presence without judgment or commentary or eventual heart disease from years of pent-up rage, I commend you.  If the bad advice has the potential to affect you in some way, remaining silent seems to allow yourself to be a victim of circumstance instead of in control of your own destiny.  I firmly believe that silence is one ingredient in a recipe for disaster.

Another option is to argue with your partner in front of the children.  This can go in a couple of ways.  Your partner will argue back with you, at which point your stepchildren will not only be confused and torn between siding with you or your partner, but they will see a weakness in the bond between you two.  It is important to be united (and to be seen as united) with your partner.

Another possibility is that your partner will switch horses midstream and agree with your comments.  Your chances of having this happen will drastically increase if you have a good rapport with your significant other and if you communicate your position in a calm, rational way.

Ultimately, I like Godin’s advice.  Think to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting?”  Learn what you can learn; the move on.  Listen carefully to what is being said and pay attention to how it is being received.  Observe the situation from a neutral position.  Give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt.  Part of loving other people is letting go of their behaviors, their quirks, their flaws, their mistakes.  It’s not trying to change them or mold them or judge them.  “Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.   Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  I Corinthians 13:4-7.

How beautiful.

Godin also talks about being generous, and specifically about generously giving your gifts to other people.  Think of your relationship with your partner and your stepchildren in that way.  Generously give your gifts to them.  In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor references a survey you can take that identifies your top five strengths.  (Take the survey here: www.viasurvey.org.)  Achor writes that studies have shown that when people consciously choose to do one thing that reflects each of these five strengths every day, they are happier.  Try doing this with your stepchildren.  Doing five of these with your stepchildren every day might be a little overwhelming, so maybe start with one.

But ultimately, be generous with your gifts and your art.  And always be open to being inspired.

Blended: The Happiness Advantage

Shawn Achor has written a book that a lot of people are talking about.  Achor is part of a movement known as positive psychology.  It’s the study of what makes people happy, unlike traditional psychology, which typically focuses on what makes people unhappy.

The book is remarkable.  In it, Achor discusses how so often people say, “once I lose five pounds, then I will be happy,” or “once I get that promotion, then I will be happy.”  So often people assume that they will be happy once they reach a goal.  But research has shown that it’s the opposite.  We become successful when we are happy.  We get the promotion when we are happy.  Our brains literally work differently and we are more creative when we are happy.

Being part of a blended family is a challenge for most people.  The divorce rate of blended families is high.  Members of blended families may think, “if only I didn’t feel _____, then I would be happy,” or “if only my spouse supported me more, then I would feel happy.”  In applying Achor’s principles, we realize that we must first make ourselves happy in order to achieve our goals.

This is why it is so vitally important to care for yourself and to focus on making yourself happy.  No one else will be able to make you happy or should be charged with trying to make you happy.

Take the time each day to raise your spirits.  Do whatever it takes to make you happy for at least a few moments.  On your way to work, listen to your favorite song.  I love soundtracks to movies.  If you’re ever preparing for something challenging, listen to the soundtrack to the movie Rudy.  It is hard not to feel empowered and inspired while listening to the music from Rudy.

Of course, there is always mediation, yoga, and exercise.  These are essentials to a healthy lifestyle, but we need to start with baby steps, and sometimes exercising just can’t be part of the day.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Instead, inspire yourself in some way.  Don’t ask anyone to do it for you or to be part of it.  Do it on your own and on your own behalf.  Retreat into yourself for at least a few moments every day to take care of yourself.

Now think about your present situation.  What are you thinking about that is making you unhappy?  Are you worried about what your partner is thinking?  Are you worried about what your children or stepchildren are thinking?  Are you worried about what your boss is thinking?  Are you worried about your weight?  Are you worried about your future?  Stop the worrying for the moment.  Write down a positive goal for your future.  In a perfect world, what would you want to feel right now?  Try not to make it about things — like a clean house or a finished project or a weight loss goal.  Instead, how would you feel?  Do you feel happy and relieved?  Do you feel hopeful?  Think about a time when you have felt these emotions, and visualize yourself feeling them again.

Take this time for yourself.  If you begin to take care of yourself and your emotional state, you will be much more able to support others.  You will stop blaming others and will more easily give others the benefit of the doubt.  Try to stop making your unhappiness about other people.  Are you sure your partner, your children, or your stepchildren are causing you to be unhappy?  Or are you playing a part in your unhappiness?  is there something you can let go of that will allow you to be happy?  Can you be more accepting?  Can you start doing less for others so that you can do more for yourself?

If you’re used to blaming others and looking outside yourself for the causes of your distress, you are not alone.  This is so easy to do.

But realize that the more you do it, the easier it will become to do it.  Recent research about our brains shows that we create pathways in our brains, and we train our brains to think in certain ways.  As a lawyer, I have trained myself to see risk, to think 20 steps ahead of where I am, to obsess over small details, and to protect and argue my position.  These traits can be beneficial in my job, but they can be devastating in interpersonal relationships.  I may win an argument, but at what cost to others?

I try so often to send my focus inward.  I find that when I do, I am so much happier.  Instead of critiquing others around me, instead of seeing flaws, instead of seeing the negative, I have been trying to focus on myself.  What am I thinking right now?  Am I thinking about someone else and what they’re thinking about?  If so, I will invariably be unhappier than if I think about things that inspire me.

I am blessed with an opportunity to be inspired on a daily basis.  If you don’t have the same experience, think about how you can change your environment so that you can be inspired at least once a day.  Sign up for an inspirational quote to be sent to your email every day.  Partner with a coworker to chat for five minutes every day about something that inspires and uplifts both of you.  Watch your favorite uplifting movie at night when you get home instead of the nightly news.  Spend five minutes before you go to bed reading an uplifting article or watching an inspirational video.  Ask your partner for the support to take an afternoon for yourself to do whatever you want to do, whatever fulfills you.  Your partner will feel good giving you this support, and you will be calmer when you return.

Do not resist change, but lean into difficult times.  Experience the emotions, and do not be afraid.

Blended: How to Stay

It is sometimes hard to stay where we are.  When I go to a yoga class and the instructor tells us to hold a pose for a long period of time, I find myself getting angry.  I’m not normally an angry person, but there is something about holding that yoga pose that makes me feel enraged.  I internally blame the instructor for making me hold this pose.  This pose is challenging me.  Doesn’t the instructor know I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to give up and I will hold this pose as long as I’m told to do so?  This pose doesn’t feel good, and, in the heat of the moment and in my own head, I blame the yoga instructor for making me hold the pose for so long.

So you see, it is sometimes hard to stay where we are.

I recently visited a friend at work.  She introduced me to a colleague of hers and explained that her colleague is also a part of a blended family.  Her colleague asked me, “Do you have step-kids?”

I said, “my fiance has two children.”

Her response:  “Good luck.”

I laughed, hoping she was joking.  She looked at me and said, “Seriously, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I have children and step-children.  I wanted to leave so many times”

I quickly sobered and asked, “Are you still with your husband?”

In response, she again stated, “I wanted to leave so many times.”

“But are you still with your husband,” I questioned again.

It wasn’t even she who answered, but it was my friend.  “Yes, they are still married,” my friend answered on behalf of her colleague.

“We’ve been together since 1986,” she said.

My friend’s colleague isn’t the only person who has advised me against being a part of a blended family.  I have had two other people actually come out and tell me not to do it.  I have had countless conversations with friends who have warned me.  I have read books and articles that make the prospect of being in a blended family so unappealing that I feel like an idiot for even continuing in the relationship.  Some statistics show that the divorce rate for people in blended families is between 60 and 70%.  It is 60% for families with children from one parent, and 70% for families with children from both parents.  The statistics are certainly grim.  Not only that, but why aren’t more people concerned about these statistics?  Why aren’t people up in arms about these facts?  If we know that divorce is devastating to all members of a family, why aren’t we even more alarmed by the fact that so many people are experiencing more than one divorce?

I suspect it is simply this:  most people just don’t know what to say.  I have read countless books on relationships and marriages.  There are incredibly intelligent researchers who passionately advocate for their positions regarding what makes marriages and relationships last.  I find some of their advice elusive.  What a blessing to the world for these people to be doing the work they are doing and to be dedicated to helping relationships last.  But I sometimes wonder if they have the answer.

Some of the best information regarding relationships I have come across hasn’t been about relationships at all.  It’s been about business.  And why wouldn’t business have something in common with relationships?  After all, business is all about relationships.

In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, he writes the following:

For many people, shenpa and anxiety are related to community.  Whether it’s throwing a party, joining a club, attending a meeting, or giving a speech, it tends to involve interactions with other people.  The killer: our anxiety not only makes us miserable, but ruins the interaction.  People smell it on you.  They react to it.  They’re less likely to hire you or buy from you or have fun at your party.  The very thing you are afraid of occurs, precisely because you are afraid of it, which of course makes the shenpa cycle even worse.  Shenpa is caused by a conflict between the lizard brain (which wants to strike out or to flee) and the rest of our brain, which desires achievement, connection, and grace.  Oscillating between the two merely makes things worse.  It seems that you have two choices for ending the cycle: you can feel or you can stay.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with fleeing.  If you can’t handle a certain kind of interaction or event, don’t do it.  Avoid it.  Some people weren’t born to be baseball umpires.  The other alternative is to stay.  If you believe that it’s important enough, then your challenge is to overrule the resistance.  Not to feel and return, flee and return.  No, you must stay.  Sit with it.  Give the resistance no quarter.  Just stay.

Seth Godin, Linchpin, Do You Zoom: 2010, p. 140.

I love to think of this advice in terms of a relationship.  Not just any relationship, but specifically a relationship involving children, as well as mutual appreciation, love, and respect.  A relationship that is good but that is also hard.

The resistance (or the lizard brain) tells us to strike out or flee.  How many of our interactions with our partners go something like that?  We either strike out or flee, or we want to strike out or flee.  Given enough of those interactions where we either strike out or flee, and the attendant emotions, we come to a point where we wonder, “stay or flee?”  As Godin advises, just stay.  Sit with the feelings, but stay.  As Godin says later, the result will be a wave of confidence.  And when things are going poorly in a relationship, what problem won’t a wave of confidence resolve?

This is not to say that staying in a bad situation is the solution.  Certainly not.  If someone does not want to be with you or treats you poorly, please, please don’t stay.  In those circumstances, stay by yourself.  Stay with the pain and the rejection and the sadness.  Stay by yourself and take comfort in your strength.  Again, this is not to say that staying in a bad relationship is right.

But it is to say that staying in a hard situation, one where you must fight the resistance, is the right thing to do.  Is it so bad to challenge yourself?  To work with your partner to create innovative ways of connecting and feeling like you both belong?  Is it really so bad to try to find hope in a situation that may, at times, feel hopeless?  Is it really so bad to fight for something bigger than yourself?  I don’t think so.

Just stay.

Inheritances

There are two things that are certain in life — death and taxes.  Nowhere is that more true than in Minnesota, where residents are not only taxed in life, but in death, in some circumstances.

Minnesota is one of 19 states (20, if you count the District of Columbia) that imposes a tax on residents’ estates upon death.  Oh, and the federal government does, as well.

If your estate exceeds $5.43 million ($10.86 million for married couples), you will incur an estate tax by the federal government of 40%.  If your estate exceeds $1.4 million in 2015 ($2.8 million for married couples), you will incur an additional Minnesota estate tax of 16%, on top of the top federal estate tax.  The Minnesota estate tax will incrementally increase to $2.0 million by the year 2018.  Please keep in mind that the exemption amount only doubles for married couples if they structure transfers to trusts appropriately.

In addition, the State of Minnesota enacted a gift tax in 2013, which subjected gifts made within three years of death to the estate tax.  Only gifts that are also subject to the federal gift tax (currently $14,000) were subject to the law.  The legislature later repealed this law, but the three-year look-back period remains.

For purposes of this blog, let us assume that Grandpa’s estate exceeds $1.4 million at the date of his death in the year 2015.  Grandpa’s estate totals $1.8 million at that time.  Grandpa’s estate will, therefore be taxed at a rate of 9% (soon to be 10%), which is a tax of $36,000.

This may not seem like a huge number in the grand scheme of things.  But just think — what could you do with $36,000?  Pay off your student loans?  Save up for retirement?  Invest wisely?  Pay for a vacation?  Donate to charity or a good friend who needs help?  A recent survey found that the three most popular ways of spending an inheritance is to pay for retirement, pay down a mortgage, or pay for their children to go to college.  Check out this really interesting article on inheritances.  http://www.businessinsider.com/3-smart-ways-to-spend-your-inheritance-2013-10.  The same article suggests that an inheritance be spent in the following way:

  • Set aside a rainy-day fund.  A rainy-day fund is 6 to 12 months’ wages in order to ensure you are able to withstand short-term financial turmoil and won’t be tempted to find cash in the wrong ways.
  • Pay down high-interest debt (credit cards, car loans), then pay off lower-interest debts (student loans, home mortgages).
  • Any “extra” cash left over can be invested for the future, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.  Keep in mind that unemployment rates for college graduates are just half the unemployment rates for high school graduates.

Keep in mind that Grandpa’s estate will not be taxed if Grandpa has in place a will with a pour-over trust or a living trust, which will allow Grandpa to transfer the estate tax-free to Grandma.  Now let us assume that Grandma also dies, leaving $2.2 million in assets to her child.  Again, if Grandma has a will with a pour-over trust or a living trust, she will be able to pass her estate to her child tax-free.  The estate will, therefore, not be subject to the $36,000 in taxes.  The will with pour-over trust / living trust has done its job!

For more information on how to avoid tax consequences in transferring your estate upon death, contact Excelsior Law Firm.

Is Long-Term Care Insurance Right For You?

The issue of health insurance is hotter than ever before.  One topic of interest is a subset of health insurance called long-term care insurance.  The Minnesota Department of Human Services’ website states that “studies show that 70% of people age 65 and older will need long-term care services at some time.”  Even more striking than the number of people who will need long-term insurance is the cost of long-term insurance.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website shows the average costs for long-term care in 2010 were as follows:

  • $6,235 per month for a semi-private room in a nursing home
  • $6,965 per month for a private room in a nursing home
  • $3,293 per month for care in an assisted living facility
  • $21 per hour for a home health aide
  • $19 per hour for homemaker services
  • $67 per day for services in an adult day health care center

Let us suppose that you and your husband or wife have assets totaling approximately $1 million in store for retirement.  One might think this number is large enough to pay for your retirement expenses, as well as long-term care for both of you with a significant portion remaining for inheritances for your children.  Now suppose you both live another 15 years after retirement and deplete your assets by $750,000 during that time.  That means the two of you live off of approximately $50,000 a year, total.  That is $25,000 a year per person.  Depending upon whether or not you have a mortgage or other expenses, that number requires you two to live modestly.  Now calculate the influence of inflation, which increases the cost of living by a compounded rate of 5% per year.  Over these 15 years, therefore, the cost of living will nearly double.

Now let us suppose that you both go into a nursing home for the last 14 months of your lives.  According to GeriPal, a Geriatric and Palliative Care blog, this was the average length of stay for patients in 2010.  You just spent nearly $175,000 in long-term care costs.  Now let us suppose that you spend the last three days of your lives in a hospital in a terminal condition.  The costs have been averaged at $21,000 for a month spent in the hospital at the end of life.  This is $42,000 for both of you.  So you spent a total of $217,000 in long-term care costs, plus the $750,000 you spent over 15 years in retirement.  This leaves your children $33,000 to be divided amongst them.  This number will cover your funeral costs and any debts you left behind, as well as any costs associated with probate.

One option for paying the extremely high costs of long-term care is long-term care insurance.  The State of Minnesota has entered into a partnership to provide long-term care to Minnesota residents, called the Minnesota LTC Partnership.  You may qualify for long-term care insurance through the Partnership if your assets are low enough.  The Department of Human Services’ website states that “currently, people must deplete most of their assets before the state will pay for their long-term care – whether it is in a nursing facility, assisted living or their own home.  In most cases, the maximum amount a person can have in assets (not including home and a car) is $3,000 to qualify for Medical Assistance.  The LTC Partnership policy allows a person to protect assets beyond the $3,000 amount.  Under the LTC Partnership, a person who buys and uses a policy to pay for LTC is able to protect their assets if they later need to apply for Medicaid.”

Not all insurance carriers participate in the Minnesota LTC Partnership.  You can obtain long-term insurance privately.  The cost of long-term insurance varies by insurance carrier.  Keep in mind that the younger and healthier you are, the lower your rate will be.  Long-term care insurance can vary by a few hundred dollars a year.  Talk to a long-term care insurance agent to determine the costs of long-term care for you.  Keep in the mind the numbers referenced above as well as the coverage offered and what services qualify for coverage.  Contact Excelsior Law Firm with any questions.

The Importance of Estate Planning

It cannot be emphasized enough that the costs of denying the importance of estate planning are great. Chances are, you have heard about the tragic situation in which Terri Schiavo and her family found themselves after she suffered a heart attack in her home at the age of 26.  She lived in a vegetative state for the next 15 years.

What you may not have heard about is the prolonged legal battle that lasted these 15 years.  Eight years after Terri’s collapse in her St. Petersburg, Florida home, Terri’s husband petitioned the court to remove her feeding tube.  Her parents opposed the petition.  On April 24, 2001, her feeding tube was removed, but it was reinserted several days later after a legal battle.  After numerous appeals and government intervention, the court held that Terri’s feeding tube should be disconnected. Terri died on March 31, 2005.  Terri did not have a healthcare directive.

Terri’s case involved 14 appeals, numerous motions, petitions, and hearings, five lawsuits, state and federal legislation, and four petitions to the United States Supreme Court.  The costs involved in Terri’s case were astronomically high.

Just a few days ago, a woman in India died after 42 years in a coma after a brutal attack when she was 26 years old.  Indian laws and legal documents are different than in the United States, but the financial, legal, and moral implications are the same.

I have a good friend named Ann McIntosh, M.D. who is an emergency physician.  Dr. McIntosh tells me story after story about patients who come to the emergency department with severe injuries or grave conditions.  Dr. McIntosh is forced to question these patients’ family members about whether the family member would have wanted their life prolonged.  Many family members simply do not know, and their ability to make these decisions at that time is significantly impaired by their shock, grief, and emotional distress.

I also recently encountered the story of a man who was involved in a severe car accident.  He was taken to the emergency department, where his ex-wife was the person in the room making major decisions about his end-of-life care.  This man had recently gone through a terribly contentious divorce with his ex-wife, and his mother and fiance were distraught that his ex-wife was the person in charge of these decisions.  Nothing was to be done at that point.

None of us likes to think about the end of our lives.  But the fact of the matter is that the ends of our lives won’t be pretty, and possibly come unexpectedly.  The grief our loved ones will experience is distress enough.  Save them the horror of having to make decisions on your behalf without your input, and be proactive with estate planning.

Blended: The Fear

Seth Godin wrote a provocative book called Linchpin.  In his book, he makes an interesting commentary on the role of fear in our lives.  He writes specifically regarding the role of fear in our careers and in our work, but I find his statements applicable to relationships, as well.  Godin writes the following:

“If there is no sale, look for the fear.  If a marketing meeting ends in a stalemate, look for the fear.  If someone has a tantrum, breaks a promise, or won’t cooperate, there’s fear involved.  Fear is the most important emotion we have.  It kept our ancestors alive, after all.  Fear dominates the other emotions, because without our ability to avoid death, the other ones don’t matter very much.

Our sanitized, corporatized society hasn’t figured out how to get rid of the fear, so instead we channel it into bizarre corners of our life.  We check Twitter because of our fear of being left out.  We buy expensive handbags for the same reason.  We take a mundane follow-the-manual job because of our fear of failing as a map maker, and we make bad financial decisions because of our fear of taking responsibility for our money.”

How many times do we act out of fear?  How many times do we love in fear?  Or parent in fear?  And by fear, I also mean anxiety.  Chances are, a lot.  Fear manifests in sneaky ways.  It masquerades as legitimate emotions.  We can make perfectly rational and compelling arguments that are really all about fear.  Fear motivates certain emotions, like a puppeteer.  So often partners blame one another for something that was said during an argument.  A hurtful comment about our character.  We remind them of the hurtful comment over and over again.  We only remind them of the comment because it was so hurtful.  And it was hurtful because it may have been true.  And it was also hurtful because we think it means our partners love us a little less because of our character flaw.  We fear losing our partners, so we blame them for making hurtful comments.

Fear prompts us to attempt to protect ourselves.  It closes us off from others.  Brene Brown might say that fear inhibits our ability to be vulnerable.  I believe that fear impedes our capacity for human connection, which Brene Brown says is a building block for a happy and productive life.

So how do we act out of fear?  A telltale sign that we are acting out of fear is when we blame others.  Brene Brown also reminds us that psychological literature defines blame in the following way:  it is a means of discharging pain and discomfort.  Think of this the next time you blame someone for something happening in your life.  Distill your emotions about a situation into precisely how you are feeling, as if you are operating in a vacuum, without regard to another person’s actions.

The key is that when we blame someone for the way we are feeling, we are merely attempting to avoid feeling pain and discomfort.  The challenge is to recognize that when we are blaming someone, we are hurting.  We are in pain and are experiencing discomfort.  Instead of blaming others, recognize how you are hurting and try to express that emotion.

One good way of trying to reduce our level of blame is to write our goals on paper or on the computer and read them aloud every morning.  The goal could be to lean into the fear, to lean into the pain and discomfort, to fight through the emotions in order to communicate in a way without blame.  Because blame, like fear and anxiety, kills all that is good and loving and happy.  Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, implores us:  “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  I ask you that question, and I challenge you to make your answer the goal you read aloud every morning.

Blended, Part I

In the Blended Introduction, I talked about creating and maintaining consistency in a blended family in order to help everyone in the family feel secure and loved.  In Blended, Part I, I will talk about how to create that consistency.

My good friend Nikki Keirnes of Keirnes Law Firm (www.keirneslaw.com) posted a wonderful article on her Blog about setting goals.  I know I have read dozens and dozens, if not more, articles on the importance of setting goals, how to set goals, how to achieve goals, etc.  But this article was really good.  In it, the author talks about writing down your goals and reading them aloud to yourself every single morning.  What a great way to start the day.

I recommend that, in order to create that consistency that is necessary for blended families, you start by writing down your goals for the family.  To start with, you can just focus on a few.  And be sure to focus on the positive, not the negative.  So, instead of saying:  “I don’t want to feel left out of the family anymore,” say the following: “I want each and every one of us to feel included, loved, and supported in our home.”  By reading these goals aloud every morning, it sets your intention for the day.

I took to posting my goals in common areas of the house.  For instance, I received a decorative chalkboard for Christmas this year.  On the chalkboard, I wrote my goals for the house.  They were actually similar to the goal listed in the paragraph above.  I said I wanted each of us to feel included, loved, and supported and for each of us to feel secure in our home and to be welcoming to others who visit our home.  I wrote that the expectations of the household were to love one another, support and encourage one another, talk and listen to one another, and be inclusive of one another.  By doing so, I displayed for everyone in the house what I intended for each of us in the house.  In other words, I put my intentions on display.

This leads to me to an interesting point about intention.  I have recently heard a lot about “the power of intention.”  Listen carefully and you will hear a lot about it, too.  The concept behind the power of intention is that we can create change in our lives by intending to do certain things.  I think relationships are perfect examples of the power of intention.  It is as simple as the following:  if we intend to stay in a relationship with our significant other, we will act very differently than if we intend not to stay in a relationship with our significant other.  We will think differently, we will plan differently, we will speak differently, we will act differently based simply upon what we intend to do.  If you intend to stay with your significant other and create a happy blended family, you are on the first step to creating the consistency that is needed to support a blended family.

So let’s talk specifics about creating that consistency.

1.  Write down your intentions for you and your family.  That’s right — don’t forget about YOU.  What do YOU want?  How do you want and need to feel in order to be in a relationship and part of a family?  Because trust me, if you are not getting what you want, eventually you will leave in order to find a place where you will get what you want.  I have another brilliant friend (and attorney) named Rebecca Schack who describes relationships in the nicest way (check her out at http://www.meierschack.com).  She says that every day in a long-term relationship requires little adjustments.  And if it’s worth it to stay in the relationship, you make the adjustments.  If it’s not worth it to stay in the relationship, you don’t make the adjustments.  So you must ask yourself the question of what is “worth it” for me?  What do I NEED in order to be in a relationship?  Be brutally honest with yourself.  In 10 years time, all the romance and newness of the relationship will have worn off, and all you will be left with is your needs, and the only question you will be asking yourself is whether they are being fulfilled.

2.  Now that you have written down your intentions, talk to your significant other about your intentions.  Be specific.   Tell your spouse what you need and what you want.  How do you feel when you are with your blended family?  Happy?  Anxious?  Tired?  Jealous?  Left out?  Confused?  Tell your spouse how you feel — without blaming him/her — and tell him/her how your intentions will help you no longer feel this way.  Communicate directly, respectfully, calmly, and succinctly.

3.   Talk to your children/stepchildren about your intentions.  Talk to them in a positive way.  Tell them how you have been feeling, again, without blaming them or anyone else.  Inspire them to want to ride the train toward your intentions.  It is easy to yell at children for not cleaning up after themselves.  But in a blended family, especially a newly formed blended family, this may cause discord.  Instead, talk about why you want them to clean up after themselves.  Tell them how good it feels to walk into a clean room and a clean house.  Tell them how you get home from work and are frazzled and overwhelmed and how relaxed you are when you see open space on tables and dishes in dishwashers, etc.  Talk to them about how you feel that your home is a sanctuary, a place where you go for relief from the real world, and how you get a warm feeling every time you think of everyone else taking care of your sanctuary by cleaning up after themselves.  Praise then when they do it right!  In turn, you will likely find yourself easing up a little, and they may work harder to meet you halfway.  It is truly a win-win situation.

4.  Be patient.  Being satisfied in a blended family takes time.  Some sources estimate it takes as long as four to seven years.  Please don’t get discouraged.  Things will get better.  Learn to accept the things you cannot change, and learn the gift of inspiring others — you will learn you can move mountains.  In Blended, Part II, I will talk about using positivity and inspiration can be game-changers for you.

Happy Estate Planning

It’s not uncommon for someone to feel more than a little unsettled at the thought of estate planning.  After all, estate planning means thinking about how to dispose of your estate when you are gone.  It can be helpful to look at estate planning from a different perspective.  Estate planning helps give us control over an event that is totally outside our control — death.  When you think about to whom you want to leave your estate and in what manner, your intentions are understood and your goals are realized.  You protect your family from uncertainty and conflict and allow them time to focus on you and their relationship with you.

I like to think of estate planning as the Irish think of funerals.  The Irish are well known for choosing to celebrate the lives of their loved ones at their funerals.  Funerals often involve plenty of food, drink, and celebration.  The Irish tend to think of funerals as a happy send off for their family members.  I cannot think of a better way of conducting a funeral.  Our lives are full of laughter, love, joy, and celebration.  I love that the Irish conduct their funerals with this in mind.

I like to think of estate planning in the same way.  During an estate planning meeting with an attorney, you will discuss what will happen to your assets when you are gone from this world and on your way to your next adventure.  It is a time to evaluate the people and things in your life that you hold most dear.  It is a time to think of who in your life you love, who you trust, who you admire, whom you want to protect, and how hard you have worked to get to where you are.  It is a time to reflect upon how you got to where you are.  It can be an enlightening experience for many people.  A listing of assets can be reaffirming and reassuring as we approach retirement or other significant experiences in our lives.

Estate planning is also a time when you can sit down with your spouse, significant other, loved ones, and an attorney and explain your fundamental beliefs about death and dying.  A valuable estate planning document, a health care directive, is available for you to describe in detail your core values and desires regarding a time when you may be incapacitated.  You may have spent 50 years with your spouse and never once discussed these issues.  It can be an enlightening experience where you and your spouse see each other through new eyes.

For most people, estate planning provides peace of mind.  They know that after they draft these documents, they never have to worry about what will happen to their families after they are gone.  Estate planning can open the door to a conversation with family members about your wishes.  “I left Tommy the house, Sue the farm, and Billy the business” can open up a dialogue with your loved ones about what they want and how it will be perceived.  So many times people fight over little souvenirs from their parents’ homes without ever realizing that what they are fighting over isn’t the souvenir but rather the feeling behind the souvenir.  If Tommy tells you he really doesn’t want the house, but Sue does, you can avoid putting your children in awkward and disruptive situations during a time they should be focusing on you.

Estate planning does not have to be sad.  In fact, it often is quite the opposite.  People often walk out of an estate planning meeting feeling happier, more in control, and with more peace of mind.  Happy estate planning!

Dealing with Family Conflict

Even though estate planning is essential in protecting families, controlling assets, and providing peace of mind, it is an unfortunate truth that it can come with a fair amount of conflict and distress.  This is particularly the case with estate planning among families.

Families have unique dynamics.  They have their own methods of communicating with one another and dealing with conflict.  These methods have been constructed over decades.  This post aims to help families address the issue of estate planning without throwing verbal assaults or even objects, or shutting down entirely.  This post aims to help families walk into a conversation about estate planning in a positive and healthy manner and to leave the conversation in an equally positive and healthy manner.

Some families are loathe to discuss estate planning.  Perhaps their estate is so complicated that they feel overwhelmed thinking of what needs to be done.  Or perhaps their estate is small and manageable but they do not like the thought of death or dying.  Or maybe they have never been good at dealing with conflict and they simply cannot find the words for expressing their wants and desires without members erupting into a fight or dissolving into tears.  So they ignore the issue for years and years.  But they always know, in the back of their minds, that one day this issue will need to be addressed.  Unfortunately, this cycle can continue for generations without interruption, to the point where an estate is perpetually the subject of conflict, distress, and strife.

Not dealing with an estate is a huge risk to take.  What families fail to realize is that unless they deal with estate planning while all members are still alive, they run the risk that once they are gone, chaos, havoc, and grief will overtake the remaining members, causing battles that last for years and hard feelings that last lifetimes.  It is far better to plan an estate while all members are alive and can express their desires and intentions.  Yet many families refuse to do so.

There are some core motivations behind families’ refusal to engage in estate planning.  They include fear of making important decisions, fear of angering other members, fear of not being heard, fear of thinking about death, and fear of the unknown.  As is clear, it is fear that fans the flames of refusal to engage in estate planning.  Understanding this motivation and appreciating that every reluctant family member is experiencing it is key in learning how to deal with family conflict in these types of situations.

If you are the family member tasked with introducing the topic of estate planning to the family, you know the importance of doing so gently, with tact, and with patience.  It is best to be direct.  You may choose to broach the topic at a family meeting scheduled just for this matter.  Or you may choose to discuss the topic at a family dinner.  Or perhaps over email.  Or maybe one on one with certain members of the family, working down the list.  Whichever way you choose to talk about this matter with your families, the following tips will help your conversations be smooth and productive.

1.  Be Confident and Self-Assured.

Always remember that others simply may not wish to talk about estate planning out of fear.  Think of a time when you wanted to avoid a situation out of fear.  Think of a time when you may have been inspired by someone who took the reins and dove into the situation and how their confidence and self-assurance calmed you.  Think of yourself as that person.  Be confident.  Intend to have a calm conversation about estate planning with your family.  Visualize how it may go in the best case scenario.  You can have a huge impact on the tone of the conversation and the reactions people have to what is being discussed if you actively engage in the conversation and have positive intentions.  If you confidently keep the conversation on point, ignore distractions, and maintain an even keel and calm tone of voice at all times, the conversation will already be leaps and bounds ahead of what might have been.  If, on the other hand, you approach the situation out of fear, you may very well be too quick to give up or assume that the conversation is going poorly.  Think of a teacher or a public speaker you really admire and how they address a crown.  Try to emulate that person’s confidence and sense of calm.  It will have a positive impact on others around you.

2.  Be Prepared.

Know what you are going to say.  If necessary, have a note pad with notes on it to guide you.  You may even want to consider bringing a script with you.  For a sample script to use in particularly contentious situations, see the sample script included below.

Most likely everyone will be grateful that you are taking the lead, especially if you give good information, remain calm, and be assertive and confident.  Now is the time to lay it all out on the table.  Do you have questions for them?  If so, tell them what your questions are and ask them to answer them now or later.  Is there anything in particular you want to discuss with your family?  If so, tell them you want to talk about it.  Give them an opportunity to think about what you are asking, if they need it.  They may not be prepared to discuss the particulars of any given issue.

You will also want to bring with you information on estate planning.  Consider bringing my post on Estate Planning Basics as a starting point.  It communicates what is needed to plan your estate in an easily understood way.  Also, come into the conversation with intention.  Know what you are asking of your family.  Do you want everyone to speak with an attorney?  Do you want them to make decisions right there on the spot?  Or do you simply want to create a dialogue to enable a discussion of these important matters?  Whatever your ultimate goal, draft notes and a script to help you attain that goal.

3.  Be Positive.

As discussed above, estate planning can be fear-inducing.  Have you ever seen a toddler fall down and watched his/her parent smile, laugh, and say “you’re okay”?  There is no need to be patronizing with your family, but take the attitude that everything is okay.  Talk to your family in a way that eliminates the fear they may be experiencing.  You may already have an idea what is motivating your family to avoid this important topic.  But there is also a chance they could be worried about something that has not even crossed your (or my) mind.  Create a forum where everyone can be heard and everyone has a voice.  Encourage people not to interrupt each other but to listen.  Laugh easily and encourage others to do the same.

The key is to implicitly communicate that discussing the estate need not create conflict.  It can be a very positive experience that brings the family closer together.  How nice to connect intimately with your family in a meaningful and positive way instead of ignore major issues that need to be discussed.  Is it not better to connect with one another, find common ground, and compromise, rather than remaining disconnected and ignoring what is so often the elephant in the room?

4.  Think Big Picture.

Chances are, your family may drive you crazy at times but, deep down, you love them like crazy.  Always remember that.  During your conversation, and in preparing for your conversation, focus on how much you love them and how what you are doing is motivated by your love for them.  Do not hold on to past grudges.  Try not to jump to conclusions when a family member speaks.  Try to avoid thinking, “Jeez, is mom going to start in on this again?”  Or, “I know where he’s going with this, and I don’t like it.”  Give everyone in the room the benefit of the doubt.  Encourage everyone in the room to listen non-defensively. Reassure everyone at every opportunity.  Start the conversation with how much you love your family.  Your ultimate goal is to ensure that after your family members pass on, the remaining members are able to come together to act in unison and to nurture the loving family bonds that can become distressed upon the death of a loved one.  Focus on this positive goal.  It will help motivate everyone else.

5.  If Need Be, Have a Script.

For more concrete advice regarding broaching this topic with your family, read the sample script below.

“Can I have everyone’s attention?  I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you all how much I love each and every one of you.  I want to say how blessed I feel to be a part of this family.  We may have had ups and downs, but we are all on this ride together, and I would not want to be doing this with anyone else.  Thank you for your love and support over all these years.

I also want to admit something to you right now.  I am nervous for the future.  I want to be able to talk to everyone openly about planning the estate.  Can I ask you all for a favor?  Could you just hear me out for the next few minutes?  It is hard for me to address the group, and I feel nervous.  But I want to discuss the estate so that one day we are not guessing what people wanted.  I love everyone in this room and I want to maintain our strong bond and connection even when members of the family pass on.  I believe that talking about some of these issues here and now will help us maintain our close family ties in the coming years.  I feel pretty nervous to talk about these issues right now.  I feel worried about what you all are thinking.  But I would really appreciate your support right now, as addressing the group about this issue is difficult for me.

I would like everyone to take a look at this sheet I prepared.  It has a list of questions that we should address.  We can vote on how best to answer these questions.  Should we answer them right now and talk about them now?  Or should we take them home, mull them over, and talk about them the next time we get together?  I want everyone to feel they have a voice in these matters.  I want everyone to feel heard.

When we do discuss these issues, I want to lay some ground rules.  I do not want anyone to interrupt anyone else.  I want everyone to listen openly and without getting defensive.  I want us all to remember how much we love one another.  And if one of us is feeling angry, I ask that he/she say so, and we can reconvene at another time when we have calmed down.

I want to thank everyone for being so supportive of me today and going along with my ideas.  It means a lot to me.  I love you all, and I feel closer to you now that we can talk about this subject.”

6.  Be Patient.

There is a chance you will not resolve all of the issues facing the family in one fell swoop.  Realize that even if you broach the topic and you get shot down, you at least gave it your best shot.  Think non-defensively about why you may have been shot down.  How did you broach the topic?  What words did you use?  Did you bring it up at an inopportune time?  Were you nervous and insecure?  Were you too direct and overbearing?  Did you spring it upon your family and were they shocked?  Change tactics before attempting to broach the topic again.  And, in the words of Winston Churchill, “never, never, never give up.”