Elder Law issues have been dealt with for a long, long time. In fact, we can trace some examples of how Elder Law and Estate Planning issues have been addressed all the way back to Biblical times.
(1) Isaac – What Happens When You Wait Too Long
We’ll start with one of my favorite stories, which relates to Isaac.
Issac was married to his wife, Rebecca, and then he had his two boys. His oldest boy, Esau, was a tough guy. He was a man’s man, a big hairy kid, a hunter. He was the kind of kid that a father would be proud of. And of course, he was the oldest boy and that certainly held a particular position, especially in the Jewish tradition of the time.
And then he had his other boy, Jacob. He was a little soft. He was a small kid, more of an intellectual, maybe a little more touchy-feely. The kind of kid that a mom’s gonna warm up to a whole lot.
The Jewish tradition at the time was that at some point in time Isaac would bestow his blessing, which essentially equated to a double portion of the inheritance, on his oldest son, Esau.
That was the Jewish tradition. That’s what his plan was. Everybody knew his plan. This was not a secret.
Everybody knew what was going on and yet did Isaac do anything? No!
Isaac just sort of let things ride. He has his oldest son who was healthy and virulent and always out in the field doing his thing. And he had Jacob who was maybe more around the home place there and everybody knew him.
But Isaac said, “Well, everybody knows. I don’t really have to do anything.”
Maybe you can relate to some of that. You know what you want, you know how you want it done. You just haven’t done anything. You haven’t taken those formal steps to take care of your estate planning.
So, in this story, we finally get to a point where Isaac is ready to take those formal steps to actually bestow the inheritance on Esau.
But at this point, Isaac is very aged, elderly, whatever you wanna call it. He can’t see very well. He doesn’t hear very well. I would say probably at this point we would call Isaac, I’m guessing, homebound.
So Isaac figures, “Well, I’m aged. I need to go ahead and formalize my blessing and my inheritance.”
And so he said, “Esau, make my favorite meal. Go out hunting, bring me the stew that I love and I’m going to bestow my blessing.”
As soon as he says that to Esau, Esau takes off running. He was off to follow his dad’s wishes. Of course, Rebecca had her ear to the door. She heard all of this and she looked over her at favorite boy Jacob. She said, “Hey look now, you need to get in there and pretend like you’re your brother. Because if you don’t go in there and pretend like you’re Esau, then you’re gonna get the short end of this deal. And your dad Isaac’s gonna bestow his blessing on Esau and you’re gonna miss out and so you need to get in there. And you know what, your dad is so frail and vulnerable. I mean he still has his mind, but he’s so frail and vulnerable we’re gonna be able to trick him.”
Jacob looks at his mom. He’s not a dumb kid. He said, “Mom, there’s no way my little skinny body is going to be able to pretend like I’m that big hairy brother of mine, Esau.”
She replied, “No, I’ve already got that planned out. Got it all figured out. What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna wrap you up in animal fur and then we’re gonna send you in there.”
And of course, they say he got wrapped up in animal fur, he went in and pretended like he was Esau. And Isaac, he was so frail and vulnerable because of his eyesight and hearing and bedridden state. All he could really do was reach out and feel that fur. He thought he was talking to Esau and in fact bestowed his blessing on Jacob.
This is a situation where someone waited so long to formalize their arrangements that it ended up not going the way that individual wanted it to go. From a theological standpoint, we all know that obviously the blessing to Jacob was apparently part of the grand Biblical plan. It just wasn’t Isaac’s plan.
And so yeah, I’m taking it aside from the theological debate there.
But you know the thing is, is that we have seen, in doing this for 15 or 20 years each, we have seen so many times where what a person wanted, what they stated, what they told everybody they wanted did not happen. And the reason it didn’t happen is because they failed to do anything to make it happen. They, like Isaac, just let it ride. Maybe they had told people but they’d never done anything. And then at some point ’cause so often people forget about this point before death.
They know what they want at death or they know how they want when they’re healthy and can take care of themselves. But this middle ground, this frail and vulnerable position, that’s where things can go bad.
(2) The Book of Luke – The Inheritance Backlash
We have clients come in every week complaining about the split of an inheritance or gifts from parents among their children. It’s very upsetting. These people are mad. They’re angry. There’s a division in the family and people aren’t talking to each other. It’s a very bitter time for a lot of families and we’ve seen it happen many times.
And again just to point out that nothing here is new, at one point Jesus was presented with a question. In the book of Luke, Jesus is among the crowd and a person in the crowd calls out to Jesus and he says, “Jesus, can you make my brother share the inheritance with me?”
Yeah, and again we’ve had people ask us this same question, “Hey, man can you make my brother share the inheritance with me?”
Jesus looks back at him and he says, “Look, first of all, what makes me the arbiter of your situation?” That’s a family, it’s a family dynamic, this is not a third-party issue.
But more importantly, he says, “Ultimately, we’re talking about mere possessions.” Like stuff that rusts and rots and goes away. Some things that are quite valuable and some things that have a lot of sentimental value.
But at the end of the day, as we explain to our client, we’re glad to help you figure out what you’re gonna do with your stuff, but our priority is helping you figure out how you’re going to enjoy your life.
Ultimately, you think back to somebody, a relative of yours that you cared about, maybe a parent that you’ve lost, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, somebody that you were close to that you liked and think back of your memories to them. Are those memories centered around a vase? A car? A bank account? No, they’re centered around the relationship, the exchange of emotions and feelings. That’s your true legacy, that’s the thing that you do need to be able to pass on.
Unfortunately, there’s so much mixture in here between the emotional and ephemeral legacy as opposed to the tangible stuff. And so what that does is, it illustrates the point that if you want to preserve the real legacy, you have to address some of these other things and make sure that what you want is going to happen.
Because I think when I read that section of Luke, I thought to myself: “Here, this person in the crowd has the opportunity to put a question to Jesus. And instead of asking the question of how they can be more God-like or how they can improve in their stature and be more like Jesus, they squander the opportunity to find out something big. They’re complaining about the brother who won’t share the inheritance.”
And of course, the person who’s asking this question from the crowd, we can certainly point the finger at that person and say, “Yes, you squandered your opportunity, you’re overly fixated on this one issue surrounding possessions and things like that.”
But you know from my experience there’s somebody else in here that we could also point the finger at. That would have been that parent or that father. Because I don’t know what the dynamics were with those two brothers. I know that there was a rift, and so often that rift is because of something that happened by that parent.
Either they failed to plan or they failed to explain their plan. Somehow it got twisted in there. Now these two brothers, they’re probably never gonna speak again. That family relationship was destroyed. And it could be because of the personality of one of those brothers. But it could just as easily be because of poor planning and poor understanding.
Poor execution. Poor execution by that senior before they passed. Oftentimes think of it in terms of legacy.
Those two brothers, their memory of their father, because if they were receiving an inheritance at this point and time it would have come from the man. So their inheritance from their father, their memories of their dad now are tainted by this situation.
Every time they think of their father, they’re going to think of this rift that was created. That has become his legacy in their lives.
That’s probably not the kind of legacy that you wanna leave in the minds of your children.
(3) Jesus’ Estate Plan – Take Care of My Mother
When Lisa and I go out and give presentations to the community, a lot of times somebody will say, “Well, you know, I wish I had enough that I had to worry about it. I don’t have enough to have to plan for it.”
When you talk about Jesus’ estate, what did he have? When he was crucified, he had his robe, his cloak, and his clothes. He had no money of his own.
However, he did still have something that was very important, and that was his mother Mary.
Jesus knew that she needed to be taken care of. Jesus was the oldest son of Mary. He was the first child that Mary birthed, and so under Jewish law, he had very particular obligations to Mary. And, it appears that Joseph, Mary’s husband, must have already been deceased. He’s not mentioned.
So, here we are at the cross. Mary is there watching this take place with her son. Jesus is still concerned about his obligation to his mother even on the cross. So, he looks over and he tells John, “Take care of my mother after I’m gone. I’m entrusting her care to you.”
John took her in, where she lived with him for the remainder of her days.
The point here is that even if you have very little in the way of assets, you have the people you care about. Even if you don’t have family, there are churches and non-profit organizations out there that are out there doing good work. You can benefit those people.
You’ve got to think about the people you leave behind. Just like Jesus felt that he needed to take care of his mother and provide for her, you need to be planning for the unexpected.
One lesson here is that stuff is not as important as the relationships that we have. I think the other lesson is about the value of planning ahead. Don’t leave things to chance when it comes to providing for your loved ones.
We’re attorneys, not theologians. However, we do appreciate those aspects in a Biblical text of situations where elder law issues, inheritance, and taking care of the people you love are a part of that too.
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