Is Family Estate Planning a “SLOW IDEA”?

ImageIn his most recent article entitled “SLOW IDEAS”, the author and famous physician Atul Gawande addressed the issue of why some medical innovations were implemented quickly – and other innovations implemented only very slowly.  He looked at it in the context of several medical discoveries, all had phenomenal upside potential, but not all had quick implementation. Briefly, the simple question he asked was whether there was a common thread to those ideas that did not gain quick traction.  He researched the “barriers to change” and then looked at possible solutions. He eliminated traditional strategies [i.e. penalties versus incentives] as less than satisfactory for various reasons.  He then analogized the solution to the time honored salesperson touch mantra of the “rule of seven” [i.e. reaching out to a person at least seven times].  He then created a  “mentoring” program as the antidote to the less effective “turnkey” approach that he believes is the cultural norm today in America.

         So how may the SLOW IDEAS model apply to family estate planning by analogy?  Let’s start by identifying the “barriers to change”. Allow to me to suggest some recent empirical data from two brief.  First, I met a Fulbright scholar from India that was studying at MIT last year.  In our conversation I asked her what was a key difference between the culture of her country and the U.S.A. She told me that since she has lived here she observed how much Americans were preoccupied with “ownership” [i.e. accumulation of wealth].  She said, aside from basic necessities, she owned practically nothing – nor did she feel a need to own anything.  She did not understand why our culture was so focused on ownership.  The second conversation I had was with a very distinguished expert on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  When discussing health care issues he stated to me that a big barrier to improving health care conditions was that many citizens of the DRC did not wish to discuss death.  For whatever reason, even though there was a prevalence of death due to war, disease, famine, etc., death was not a subject that a conversation would lend itself to even for the purpose of promoting health care. Why?

Statistics show that, despite very important reasons to do an estate plan, more families elect to not do so?  Could it be that we are all so focused on owning more stuff, as George Carlin’s skit “The Importance of Stuff” would suggest?  Could it be that we simply do not want to speak about the “D” word?  Or could be some other explanation, viz.; too expensive, too time consuming, or too complex?  No matter what reason we have for not wanting to deal with estate planning, what is a better framework to have a reasonable dialogue on the subject matter?

I think that the best way to start the conversation is to simply ask why you are not having the conversation. Why? As Dr. Atul Gawande, wrote in his article “[t]o create new norms you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change.  You have to understand what is getting in their way.  . . .  Human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change”.  So if you have not asked – ask!  And if you have asked, and not had a satisfactory conversation, ask again until you understand the solution to the problem, or at the least the barriers that keep your family from creating an estate plan.

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