If You Have the Will, You Have the Way

Physician's Money Digest, February28 2005, Volume 12, Issue 4

Funerals have a way of helping you focus onwhat's important in life. Take the other day.I found myself sitting next to Joe Tomarra,MD, a physician I had come to knowrecently. I considered him intelligent enough, butthere were some holes in his education. Here's howthe conversation went:

Dr. Tomarra:

Too bad about Bill. We'll miss him.He was a great guy. What happened to him?

Dr. Constan:

Sudden heart attack. Before the paramedicscould get to him, it was all over. His family ispretty upset, and on top of that, there was the problemwith the will.

Dr. Tomarra:

What happened to the will?

Dr. Constan:

They couldn't find it. After tearingthe house apart, the family finally found a small lockbox, but there was no key. They finally opened it witha sledgehammer and got the will out.

Dr. Tomarra:

Indeed? Well, if I go tomorrow, myfamily won't have to break open a lock box to find thewill. There isn't any will to find.

Dr. Constan:

You're kidding, right?

Dr. Tomarra:

No. I've just never gotten around togetting one written up.

Dr. Constan:

That's just like your typical physician,putting off getting their will written. You knowthis should be a priority. What's holding you up?

Dr. Tomarra:

It's just a lot of things. But truth betold, I dread the idea of sitting down in front of alawyer and baring my financial soul. I assume youhave one; how did you find a lawyer you could trustto share intimate financial and family information andto give you good advice about it?

Dr. Constan:

It's a lot like finding a family doctor.You do have a personal family doctor, don't you? Thebest way to find a good lawyer is to ask your friendswho they use and why they like them, and then make anappointment to talk about your will. After you talk tothe lawyer for a while, you should get a good idea if youcan work with them. You have no obligation to enterinto a long-term relationship unless you like them.

Lawyer Assistance

Dr. Tomarra:

But a lawyer is different than a familydoctor. Pretty much all my dealings with lawyershave been negative. Remember that trial lawyer whotook me apart last year in that malpractice action? Itwasn't a pretty sight.

Dr. Constan:

Let me make it easy for you. Here arethree names of lawyers I know and trust. You shouldlike any of them. They're very good and they'll do agood job on your will. Now, will you promise me you'llcall one of them tomorrow and set up an appointment?

Dr. Tomarra:

I'll think about it. But, you know,I'm not sure I'm ready to start thinking of myself inthe past tense. Maybe I'll wait until I'm older. Whatare the chances of me dying any time soon?

Dr. Constan:

Interesting question. It shows justhow powerful denial can be. Even a smart guy likeyou can rationalize that you're not going to die, whenyou know darn well that you will, and it could happenany time.

Why don't you go onto one of those Web sites thatcalculate your expected lifespan? Livingto100.com isan excellent one. You answer the questions aboutyour health status, lab, blood pressure, etc, and thesite calculates your expected date of demise.

Dr. Tomarra:

How gross. How is that supposed tohelp me in any way?

Dr. Constan:

Simple. When you get that date, youask yourself some questions, such as how old willyour wife and kids be when you die, what will theirfinancial needs be at that time, and will it be good orbad for them to receive any or all of your money?

These questions will help you focus on theinevitable, and get you thinking along the lines ofwhat you would like to happen to your estate at thattime. Then you can extrapolate back to what wouldhappen if you died sooner than that and what youwould like to happen to your possessions.

Dr. Tomarra:

I still don't like the idea, Lou.

Dr. Constan:

Of course you don't. There are severalpowerful reasons why you, like so many otherdoctors, don't have wills. We spend our careers fightingdeath, and it's also almost a requirement that wephysicians subjugate our needs to those of ourpatients. We're too busy taking care of patients totake care of this simple act to protect our own families.Of course, there's also the problem of loss of control.We're all control freaks. We try to control ourworlds, and death is the ultimate loss of control.

Financial Control

Dr. Tomarra:

Funny, I find these arguments very,very persuasive.

Dr. Constan:

I'm not going to let you off, Joe. Whenyou look at them carefully, these are terrible arguments.Even though we deny our own needs, we cannot denythat our families have needs and that if we deny thoseneeds, they can suffer harm through our act of omission.

Even though death is the ultimate loss of control,a will has the ability to extend our influence over theworld after we are no longer here. Estate planning ismore than figuring out a way of keeping Uncle Samfrom getting his hands on our money. Estate planningis a way of making sure that our families get whatthey need when they need it, and lets us accommodateindividual variations of that need. It's a way of continuingwhat we're doing while we're alive.

Dr. Tomarra:

Good point, but won't a will cost mea lot of money? I'm kind of strapped right now.

Dr. Constan:

Think of the lawyer's fees as a kindof management fee similar to what your financialadvisor or the manager of the mutual funds you owncharges. You don't blink at paying someone 1% or2% of your total assets to manage them for you. Thelawyer's fees will probably not be that high, and theywon't have to be repeated every year.

Dr. Tomarra:

Okay, you've almost sold me. As soonas my wife and I can get together and discuss what wewant in my will, we'll give one of these lawyers a call.

Dr. Constan:

I wouldn't let that stop you from makingan appointment right away. You don't wait untilyou figure out your illness before you go to your familydoctor. You and your wife should go immediately.The lawyer will help guide you in tackling the issuesyou need to face. At the very least, they'll give you someoptions as to how other people have structured theirwills, and you can make your choice from that list.

In summary, Joe, I hope that I have corrected youreducational deficiencies in this area. A will is notsomething to fear. Of course it's uncomfortable goingthrough the process, but once you've done it, you arefree to live the rest of your hopefully very long lifewithout the worry that an unexpected illness or accidentwill hurt your family. And an added benefit isthat you'll be a better all-around physician and a bettercounselor to your patients.

Louis L. Constan, a family practice physician in

Saginaw, Mich, is the editor of the Saginaw County

Medical Society Bulletin and Michigan Family

Practice. He welcomes questions or comments at

3350 Shattuck Road, Saginaw, MI 48603; 989-792-1899; or louisconstan@hotmail.com.