I just finished a novel called The Last Station. It deals with the last year of the life of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist. It’s one of those works of “historical fiction” that contain a lot of actual history. I really enjoyed it.
Tolstoy was a wealthy member of the Russian gentry. He owned a country estate, and he owned the rights to some great books – like War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
But as he aged Tolstoy grew increasingly uncomfortable with his wealth – and with his family, who felt they were entitled to wealth but had no responsibility to contribute anything. So, Tolstoy decided to leave the rights to his works to society rather than his family.
Tolstoy and his wife had thirteen children. What do you suppose his wife did when she found out she and they weren’t to receive the rights to his books? You can get the details by reading the book, but let me summarize: she went crazy. Besides hounding Tolstoy day and night, reading his diaries, and conspiring with anyone whom she could corner, she threatened and bullied and tried to kill herself. She finally drove Tolstoy to flee his home at the age of 82. He soon died in a remote train station.
Jon and I don’t see quite so much drama in our office, but our clients wrestle with the same issues that Tolstoy did.
How much will the surviving spouse really need when the first spouse dies? How much should the kids receive? (How much is too much?) Should charities be included? If so, which ones and for how much?
These are hard questions. And there’s no “right” answer.
One of the most important parts of our job is to help our clients discuss and think through these issues. Generally our clients have never really talked about these issues together. There’s a lot of emotion in these discussions. Having a third party to ask good questions and to keep the discussion moving in a positive direction can be crucial.
I’m proud to say that so far we’ve never had clients disagree so sharply that one of them fled the family home! In fact, I’ll brag and say that our clients have been able to make some wise decisions to balance the reasonable needs of their family and their desire to benefit their community.
When we read fiction we find insights and lessons to apply in our own lives. The next time you’re reading novels about pre-revolutionary Russia, be on the lookout for the estate planning issues. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can help you with your own planning. Long live the Tsar!