For all the time I spend urging clients to understand that the best things in life are not things and to plan their estates and legacies with the notion that there are principles worth more than who gets what and how much, in some cases, it inevitably comes down to the things.
And, more often than not, its the little things that cause the most trouble.
For the best example of how a little thing in an estate can cause the greatest of problems, I need look no further than my own family.
My grandmother was a delightful, humble peasant woman who emigrated here from Eastern Europe. Her simple ways and broken English still evoke warm memories; even though its been 48 years since she died. At family gatherings, she would inevitably find me alone and, after furtively looking both ways to see that there was no one around, she would squeeze some nickels or penniesalways wrapped in a handkerchief secured with a knotinto my small hand, with the whispered words, Joey, hide this!
Thats who my Grandma wassimple, generous, and warm.
When she died, she didnt own much, nor did she have any estate to speak of, as might be expected from a poor widow who lived only on farms, both in the Old Country and here, but she owned a wedding ring–plain and unadorned.
And that ringthat simple gold band–spawned the most vicious battle my family had ever seen.
To understand the Battle, regardless of the stakes, you would have had to understand my two aunts. For as gentle and giving as my Grandma was, thats how nasty and selfish her daughters were (why this happens sometimes, I still dont know). My aunts would fight over Everything: who had the better house (or car); who made the better catch in finding a husband; whose kids were smarter and better looking, and on and on and on
And, of course, when Grandma died, they focused their ongoing, lifetime battle to another theater of operations: Her Wedding Ring.
Lets do the math together: Two impossibly stubborn womenone ring. You might figure that this is going to be a Winner Take All, but nooooooo.
There was no way on Gods Green Earth that one aunt was going to walk away from this Battle of the Amazons empty handed.
One day, after having apparently lost the will to fight any longer, my aunts came up with a most unlikely solution: With the ring, they together went to the local jeweler..
.and they paid the jeweler to saw Grandmas ring in half and build two rings out of the one ring!!
Now, in my life Ive been to many wedding ceremonies, and in more than a few, Ive heard the officiant, whether minister, priest or rabbi, speak of the importance of the Ring in a marriage. The ring, being circular, is symbolic of the never ending, perfect, timeless Circle of Life and of Love, such as is contained in the promises that a bride and groom make to each other.
I thought of that Never Ending, Perfect, Timeless Circle of Life and Love in the jewelers hands and could almost hear the jewelers power saw tearing it asunder.
So now there were two rings where there once was only one. Let me ask you: Do you think that my aunts got along any better after the Ring Incident?
Nope. They went on to find other things to fight about, making each other miserable until one aunt died, and finally, the other.
And today I wonder about the location of the two dresser drawers where forgotten things go to die, never to be worn, admired, examined, or even thought about again, because thats where Im sure thats where my Grandmas half-rings are.
Bottom line: When you plan your estate, beware of the little things. They can cause more trouble than bank accounts, stock portfolios or real estate.
Just ask my family.