Nov 12

The Overlooked Estate Planning Document

by Steve Darty

I have a skillet. It’s a cast iron relic weighing 5.2 pounds with the number 8 incised into the bottom.

Now logic suggests the 8 represents the diameter of the skillet, but that’s not the case. With the advent of woodburning stoves, pans were cast to fit the size of the openings in the stove tops, known as “stove eyes”.

According to the 1924 Wagner Manufacturing Company catalog, a number 8 pan is designed to fit into the number 8 sized stove eye, which just so happens to be 8 7/8 inches in diameter.

Understanding the history and DNA of my skillet makes cooking with it a deeper experience.

After having lost the second of my parents, my two siblings and I found ourselves like many, sitting at a kitchen table, coming to grips with the fact our parents were no longer there. As we were going through things, we began to find notes and letters and knowing my folks, this was intended to provide us with one last adventure. And they succeeded.

One such note I found was addressed to me by my father. It was penned with bold strokes and featured a signature worthy of a founding father. It was folded neatly and sealed inside a 1 quart Ziploc bag and left in the skillet.

The letter is private but suffices to say, Pops wanted me to have the skillet. You see, whenever he took us camping, fishing, or hunting, we brought along that number 8 skillet.

He had another that was larger, but this was the perfect size for camping. Long enough for bacon and headless fish, but not so burdensome as a 12 incher. Whenever I see that skillet I hear, smell, and taste breakfasts from decades ago. And this past July when I took my own son camping in Glacier, you can guess the first item on the camping list.

And when we used it, we were not alone.

Now I don’t recommend leaving clues and puzzles for your children to solve, but I do recommend leaving letters.

A personal letter of instruction is the most overlooked and over-needed estate planning document and it’s one that only you can write. It can be as sterile as a checklist, or it can be a very heartfelt letter saying those things that need to be said. Either way, our loved ones need to know things like whether we have or don’t have a mini-storage unit. There’s no national registry of life insurance policies, so please, list the ones you have and if you don’t have any, let that be known. Give us a roster of your bank accounts, credit cards or debts owed, and the names and numbers of your financial advisors, insurance agents, accountants, or
lawyers if applicable.

When a loved one passes, we are left with so much to process both emotionally and logistically. The last thing we need is a treasure hunt. Instead, have a 3 ringed binder and within it everything your loved ones need to know. That way the search is limited to the front and back binder covers. This prevents the unnecessary forensic work of going through boxes, file cabinets, desk drawers the whole time wondering when it’s safe to stop looking. Your binder should include your will, your incapacity documents, and most certainly your letters.

For some time I have encouraged my young parents to write letters to their children in the event they’re not at their children’s graduations, wedding, child births, and hard times such as your own inevitable funeral. But then I realized this cobbler’s child had no shoes. So, I began writing down all of the values and traditions of my own family and the wisdom my father, mother and others mentors have tried to instill in me along the way. And a funny thing happened, I began to “parent on purpose”. The act of writing down these things made me realize I better get to teaching. And though I’m far from a perfect parent, I’m now a better parent, as I now better recognize the teaching moments.

For me, it was a skillet. I couldn’t get 5 cents for my skillet, but to me it’s priceless. For your loved ones, it will be something else. No matter what it is, it will have much more meaning if they know how you feel about it, and why you are leaving it to them. And by so doing, we might just convert the ordinary into traditions.

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