Sunday, September 29, 2019

Gaming It Out

Nothing makes one explore the implications of one’s own mortality like choosing a beneficiary.*

Don’t get me wrong: the open casket of a close friend or family member always provides a moment or two of bracing clarity, but far too many of us are accustomed to granting the dead their expected tearful due, then moving on as expeditiously as is decently possible.

Sure, we hear the occasional grateful acknowledgement that there but for the grace of God go the rest of us, but most of us are disinclined to let the full implications of that reality really permeate.

On the other hand, choosing a beneficiary inspires some of us to try to game out all the possible permutations and combinations beforehand and try to picture what our world might look like on that inevitable day when we find ourselves with precisely zero input into the choices of our loved ones.

Decisions, Decisions

When I was in my thirties it seemed logical to designate a sibling as my beneficiary. My children were too young to be named. Had something happened to me back then, a responsible adult would have needed to step in, and my siblings were the best possible combination of semi-responsible adults and people inclined to actually care one way or the other about the welfare of my kids. Twenty years down the road, my kids are adults themselves, and, to varying degrees, fit to manage funds without supervision. Moreover, if I am realistic about my own prospects for an early demise, I must be equally realistic about the possibility that any of my siblings may unexpectedly precede me into the presence of the Lord.

But, as experience has shown, simply dumping tens of thousands of dollars into the hands of a struggling adult child may or may not produce the desired effect. It can often make things worse. In the wrong hands, too much money can easily become a disincentive to responsible behavior. An example: two old friends of mine received upwards of $100,000 from a parent’s estate. One frittered it away in casinos, the other took a break from working for three years only to find himself virtually unemployable afterward, then divided his family by fighting over $5,000 he thought was still owed to him. Neither result was profitable in the long term, nor what the generous parents had intended for their children.

Things We Can’t Control

Even smaller windfalls can encourage unhealthy dependence. A child works for a living and comes close to scratching by, accumulating debt, though not outrageously. A small influx of unexpected cash may provide a financial reboot that enables her to set her affairs in order and do better the next time round. Equally, it may create the unrealistic expectation that a few thousand more dollars are always just around the corner, and tomorrow’s money may safely be spent today. I’ve seen both.

So sure, I can speculate how each of my children might behave with what is probably a fair degree of accuracy based on their track records, but there is no way to be 100% certain that past patterns will always continue to repeat themselves. Even Yours Truly has demonstrated an unexpected ability to learn from my mistakes on occasion.

What is evident, then, is that no matter how carefully we plan, we cannot effectively control how our children manage the resources we pass on to them, whether they use them for good or ill, and whether they make much of them or blow through them in a few months. We certainly cannot control whether they learn good habits or bad from them, or even whether they remember us fondly on account of what we have done for them. All of this we really have to leave in the Lord’s hands, don’t we?

An Inheritance Less-Easily Measured

But there is more than one kind of inheritance. There are things we may leave to others which cannot be measured in mere dollars and cents. Solomon said that a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children. That was contrasted with a “sinner’s wealth”, so he was probably thinking of property or liquid assets.

And yet that same word translated “inheritance” in Proverbs occurs elsewhere in much less literal and more important ways. When later on in the same book we read that the blameless will have a good inheritance, it is evident it is not a mere financial legacy that is in view. Moreover, if you value it, the word of God is itself an inheritance. The psalmist says, “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart.” There was even a time the Lord said to Aaron, “I am your portion and inheritance.”

Precious, Durable and … Out of Our Hands

For the Christian, this is certainly true, and dwarfs any financial legacy we might ever have left to us. Parents who teach their children to seek understanding in the word of God and find joy and hope in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ are leaving behind something more precious and durable than any quickly-diminishing bank balance.

Equally, a non-literal inheritance can be a bad thing. Job said, “I have inherited months of emptiness.” Proverbs says whoever troubles his own household will “inherit the wind”, meaning nothing of substance. There are parents who leave their children something similar.

As those who know and love Christ, we have an unparalleled opportunity to leave good advice, sound moral examples, and a clear sense of right and wrong to our children, but we cannot guarantee they will opt to benefit from them the way we have. That’s entirely up to them.

Never Forgotten

The other day, my mother and I were looking at a plaque dedicated to the memory of a pretty woman who had died in 2005. It read “Never forgotten.” That’s a nice sentiment, but probably quite untrue, at least so far as this earth is concerned. Perhaps she is not completely forgotten fourteen years down the road, but she is surely on the minds of her friends and family much less today than when that plaque went up on the wall. Their memories of her are increasingly cobwebbed by time, and one day there will be nobody left to remember her at all.

I suppose that thought should bother me. It really doesn’t. As the hymnwriter paraphrased the apostle, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” That’s a long and poetic way of confirming that everything that matters about each of us who really know Jesus Christ is securely hidden in him, whether the world will remember it or not. It cannot be lost, forgotten, unclaimed or gobbled up by lawyers. It cannot be misspent by profligate progeny. It cannot be distorted or tarnished by time.

That said, it’s still better to choose a responsible beneficiary than an irresponsible one …

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*  Sure, you can direct the proceeds of life insurance policies, pensions or group investment plans into your estate where the probate process nibbles away at them and they take forever to get where they are going, but in Canada naming a beneficiary provides a desirable end-around to our rapacious court processes.

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