Estate Planning and Your Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

As most of us learned in school, the original phrase coined by philosopher John Locke was “life, liberty, and property.” Thomas Jefferson famously replaced “property” with “pursuit of happiness.” While we can debate what “pursuit of happiness” genuinely means, suffice to say it is the belief and acknowledgment that we as individuals are much more than what we own; that the lives we live, and are entitled to live, are meaningful far beyond the mere accumulation of wealth and property.

Some could argue that property brings them happiness, but it is still the end goal of happiness that justifies the means. Property, in and of itself, is meaningless. Wealth without application is valueless. The only meaning or value they have is in how we apply or use them—that is, the purpose we give them.

What’s in a Legacy?

Your ”estate” is your property. Your “legacy,” on the other hand, is your life spent in pursuit of happiness. The wealth management industry is largely shifting away from investing merely to continually grow your assets and has moved towards a “goals-oriented” investing approach. Rather than investing to simply help you acquire more property, many wealth managers today are starting to ask about your life goals—i.e., what will make you happy—and figuring out how to best manage your assets in order to help achieve those goals and, ultimately, your happiness.

The legal industry, however, is grossly behind the times

Today, estate planning lawyers continue to focus on the transfer of your property on death, the protection of your property from third-party claims and lawsuits, and the avoidance of taxes, which again is only an attempt to keep as much of your property as possible. What about your pursuit of happiness? What about the life you lived that ultimately resulted in acquiring your property?

Most of the time, estate planning lawyers fail to integrate your pursuit of happiness into your estate plan. More importantly, by focusing purely only on your death, estate planning lawyers fail to help you at all in your pursuit of happiness during your life.

Unhappy Advice

Your estate planning lawyer is supposed to be an advisor, a “counselor” of law. What is the job of any advisor if not to give their clients advice that ultimately helps them to achieve happiness?

Happiness, or the continual pursuit thereof, should be at the core of any guidance, legal or otherwise. It’s almost nonsensical to think otherwise. Just imagine a lawyer saying, “Here is a strategy I think you should implement that will make you utterly and completely unhappy.” You would probably get up and walk out of the meeting immediately, right?

Or, imagine a lawyer saying to you, “I suggest you put an estate plan in place that will have a 90% chance of failure, and will almost certainly ensure that your family falls apart and your wealth is gone by the time your grandchildren are adults.” You would probably get up and walk out just as quickly, right? Well, the reality is, that is exactly what estate planning lawyers are doing today.

Studies show that traditional estate planning results in a 70% chance your wealth will be gone by the second generation and a 90% chance it will be gone by the third generation.

The reason? Because traditional estate planning focuses on three basic things: (i) your death, (ii) your property, and (iii) taxes. It fails to integrate who you were as an individual that ultimately resulted in your achieving the material wealth and property in your estate. The totality of your life’s works, you entire being, is the foundation upon which your estate was built. Without it, your estate and your legacy will ultimately crumble.

It is time for estate planning lawyers to change their approach entirely and to become legacy planning lawyers. Instead of focusing purely on your property and taxes, we need to focus on your pursuit of happiness, both as an individual and as a family unit. Instead of focusing on death, we need to focus on life and to view our jobs as advisors who navigate the legal road towards your happiness and human fulfillment. Otherwise, what’s the point?

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal issues.