As estate planning attorneys, the underlying assumption has always been that clients want to maximize their wealth and minimize the costs associated with disability and ultimately, death. Our clients, we believed, wanted all our efforts to make that happen.
And certainly, that’s a good place to start… but maybe it’s not the only goal we should have on our agenda.
In a recent news story, an Austrian millionaire with an estimated $4.5 million estate has decided to rid himself of his wealth and find a different meaning for life. Believing that money itself causes unhappiness, he speculates that the opposite must also be true and not content with just a cocktail party conviction, he is putting his theory to the ultimate test: he’s trading his wealth for a small cabin in the mountains. He’s selling his villa, his home in Provence, his cars, planes, even his furniture and donating it all to his micro-finance charities in Latin America.
He said, “My idea is to have nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Money is counterproductive. It prevents happiness.” He said in the past he wasn’t brave enough to give up his luxurious lifestyle. During a three week vacation in Hawaii, he came to realize that his life was a soulless journey. After spending all the money he could imagine, he felt that he never had an authentic conversation or met any real people.
His solution? Give everything away.
Reading this, I’m reminded of the Bible quote that almost everyone gets wrong: “money is the root of all evil.” But what the verse actually says is that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Funny how those few extra words can give the verse such a different meaning!
My point is that estate planning must take into account a wide spectrum of client beliefs, including those that are about something other than money. All too often it’s easy to take shortcuts in consultations and listen for what we would actually do if we were in their shoes—rather than listening for what is most important to the client. A careful interview with this Austrian client might have revealed that his true desire was to benefit others and create a legacy that will be remembered longer than his shopping sprees and flamboyant vacations… then perhaps settle into a quiet and simple life while he sees his money having a longer lasting impact.
Who knows for sure what was truly important to him, but as counselors, listening carefully to your clients’ values and beliefs is the hallmark of quality planning. To do otherwise would be a dangerous path indeed.