Editors note: This article was one of a select few chosen for the inaugural print edition of New Focus Daily which debuted at SURVIVORville 2017. We would like to thank Wendy for sharing such a personal story with our SURVIVORville attendees and New Focus Daily readers. A co-survivor’s journey is important and needs to be heard. Finances are unfortunately one of the many areas of concern for those dealing with cancer and we appreciate Wendy’s willingness to share that aspect of her co-survivor journey.
Near and Dear to My Heart – Financial Planning for Women. Really?
We strive for and embrace the “happily ever after” dream. We go to school, grow up in loving families, have rewarding careers, eventually meet our soul mates, build a home of our own, create cherished memories, and build meaningful and fulfilling relationships along the way. However, reality throws us a curve ball every now and then, putting everything we worked so hard for in jeopardy. It can lead us down a path completely different than we anticipated.
When one’s “happily ever after” is interrupted, as a financial planner and advisor, I have an opportunity to positively impact the lives of others. Making a difference is what I live for—it is the “why” behind what I do. Why is financial planning for women such an important topic to me? It’s personal.
This issue hit home for me in when my uncle passed away suddenly. He was 42 years old, leaving my 40-year old aunt devastated. She never dreamed she would become a widow at such a young age. Uncle Kurt handled the family budget and finances. He owned and operated his own construction business while Aunt Alice was at home raising their two sons.
When I initially asked my aunt about their financial situation, she informed me that my uncle had a will, life insurance policies, investments, retirement accounts, and that they had a good bit of money in the bank. I initially took some comfort in this. However, I later learned that my uncle had personally guaranteed business debt. Also, there was no business succession plan in place, which meant business operations could not continue without Uncle Kurt. When the business came to a halt, so did the income that provided for my aunt and their children.
“How will I replace lost income? Will I be able to keep our home? I have been out of the workforce for over eight years – do I have the skills needed to obtain a meaningful job that will produce enough income to support my family going forward? How will this change my retirement plan? How will I handle and settle Kurt’s estate? What is probate? I don’t have the faintest idea where to begin. Who can I trust to help me through all this?” All these questions more than overwhelmed my aunt.
At the time, Aunt Alice and Uncle Kurt were sure their planning efforts were thorough—that they had covered all their bases, did all they were supposed to, and that everything was done properly to avoid such a catastrophic loss. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.
Here we are over 11 years later and my aunt is still working two full-time jobs just to make ends meet. Her quality of life is nowhere near what Uncle Kurt would have wanted. This is exactly what they both thought they had planned to avoid.
Then in 2007, a different kind of devastation hit my family. My mother had just finished the 16-month process of building her dream home. She left northern Virginia and moved to Homosassa, Florida looking forward to adapting to her new warm weather community. Just six months later, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer had already spread to her liver and other areas. After many trips to Florida to care for Mom after chemotherapy treatments and such, my sister and I convinced Mom to move back to Virginia where she had a support system of family and friends nearby. Soon thereafter, Mom moved back to Virginia and came to live with me.
The basic broad questions began to flood my mind. “How will I take care of my mother at home, while balancing my children, marriage, and my career?” These were followed by more specific questions, “How can I help her find the right doctors and medical professionals here in Virginia? How do we know they are the right medical professionals to treat Mom? Are her options for treatment here in Virginia different than in Florida? How am I going to get someone to cover my job responsibilities when I take Mom for treatments and tend to her during her ‘bad days’ at home? How will that impact my income and how will my family handle the shortfall?”
Being a financial planner, all the questions relating to Mom’s finances and her estate planning inundated my mind as well. “I have to find out everything there is to know about Mom’s income, expenses, debt, taxes, insurance and everything else. How can I manage all of mom’s affairs without infringing upon her independence? What are the most important things on Mom’s bucket list? What’s most important to her? What can I do to help her make the most of the ‘good days’ she has? When the time comes, what are Mom’s final wishes? Where does she want to be laid to rest? Who will inherit Mom’s belongings and assets? She needs to put all that in writing. What is the best way I can facilitate all this for Mom?”
I struggled with feelings of panic, worry and fear. As a mother, how do we distract or redirect our kids? Give them something to do. That’s exactly what my mother did. She came to me and said, “Alright Wendy, I’m going to be your client and I need your planning expertise and guidance. I am dying. While each of us will die at some point, it just so happens that I have to prepare much earlier than I ever imagined that I’d have to. I want to do everything I possibly can to make sure that I don’t become a burden to you, or to April (my sister). As my health gets worse and worse, I don’t want difficult decisions to fall on you girls. And when I pass away, I don’t want the act of wrapping up my personal and financial affairs to be a complete mess and/or major inconvenience. I want you to treat me like a client and walk me through the various stages of planning for my death.”
So that’s what I did. I knew the clock was ticking—and didn’t know how much time was left on the clock itself. So together, Mom and I planned. We made a list of the items and issues we needed to discuss sooner or later. We then rearranged the list based upon Mom’s priorities. As time went on, our initial list evolved into many other lists, sub-lists if you will. Mom and I talked about all the finance-related issues, medical topics and end of life planning. Together we learned a lot about a wide array of topics as well as about the process of end of life planning itself. And I took notes, lots and lots of detailed notes—I didn’t want to forget anything. Our talks led to other discussions about Mom’s life, parenting, love, religion, personal beliefs, childhood stories, Mom’s experiences, her desires and future wishes for me and my sister, as well as the grandchildren.
Our discussions were not always dark and heavy with sadness. We allowed ourselves to be silly and laughed a good bit too. When talking about cremation, we learned about urns and how the costs vary based upon size, type, style and such. Who knew urns could be so expensive! WOW! What type of urn does Mom want? She hadn’t considered that. Since Mom knew she wanted her remains to be scattered, she saw no value in buying an expensive urn because it “looked pretty,” especially since it would be for temporary use. Mom joked about buying an urn on Amazon. “Better yet, if we purchase a used urn on eBay, you could then re-sell it on eBay after I ‘move out’ to get some money back.” We even kidded around about how that advertisement/description might read. It would be “hilariously ridiculous” for sure. That’s what mom said.
Later on, Mom told me it was time to put the shoe on the other foot and began to talk about herself in third person context. In retrospect, perhaps it was easier for Mom to refer to herself in third person for certain discussions. She said, “Wendy, because your mother has been diagnosed with incurable cancer, you will be the one to coordinate her medical needs and her financial affairs when she becomes unable to do so for herself. You are also the one who will be responsible for settling your mother’s estate when she dies. You need to do all you can right now to ensure you are absolutely prepared and ready to act in that capacity.”
Whoa! As if that wasn’t enough to digest, she went on to say, “Wendy, your unique internal compass leads you to teach, to serve, and to guide others in such a caring way. Because of your genuine concern for the financial well-being of others, you have educated and helped so many of your clients through their own life calamities. You meticulously plan through the many possible scenarios logistically, educate and prepare your clients for the various outcomes. As a result, these families are able to make well-informed decisions, prepare for the loss and navigate through their life stage transition knowing with certainty that everything was addressed and handled in a thoughtful manner. You provide these families with peace of mind knowing no stone was left unturned. What a difference this makes in the lives of those families!”
She continued, “Wendy, now I want you to become your own client. I want you to logistically think about your role and responsibility as Power of Attorney and eventually as Executor of your mother’s will and estate settlement tasks. I don’t want you to look back one day and wonder what else you could have or should have done. From that perspective, do what you need to do now. Please do this because I need to know that you will have the same peace of mind your clients have when your mother dies.”
So I became my own client. I went through the exact planning process that I had previously designed for my clients who were caring for an aging parent and were in the throes of estate planning. And I’m so glad I did as it was immensely helpful. Navigating through my own planning process, from the client’s perspective, was certainly a learning experience on many levels.
What grew from all this was the desire and passion to help others going through this life calamity as well as other stages of life transition. Thus began my quest to provide educational and consultative programs focused on helping others plan for and work through their own life stage transitions. Clients I work with emerge from their situations with the ability to make more knowledgeable decisions and have a better understanding of how they can move forward in a more confident manner than before.
When one’s “happily ever after” is interrupted by a diagnosis, death, or divorce, I have an opportunity to positively impact the lives of those affected. I’m not saving lives like doctors, police officers or fire fighters do. However, I focus on quality of life. By educating and consulting women about the financial planning issues that affect their lives, I empower and encourage and motivate them in the right direction toward financial security. As a Financial Planner, this is what motivates me every single day.
It was June 6, 2008 that I lost my mother—just five days before her 52nd birthday. We had just enough time to plan everything before she discontinued her chemo treatments. Because of all the planning we did together, everything went as smoothly as it possibly could have. I often reflect on life lessons from Mom. Empathy for others—Mom’s last life lesson for me was painfully beautiful and everlasting.
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