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Language Barriers

I recently attended a barbecue at a friend’s house where most of the guests were prior military. My husband and I are prior Air Force, and others were prior Navy and prior Army. Some of us had never met before and the others we’d only met in the last year or so, yet over the course of the night, we all talked like old friends. People jokingly called one another by military rank and at one point I made a joke, “I was just a lowly enlisted person; I don’t know what you officers are talking about,” and everyone laughed. We shared stories about serving in the military during 9/11, about our common experiences, and about the ways they varied: one guy was working at the Pentagon on that day and his experience was very different from mine as I was half a world away in Korea that day. We discussed the impact on our missions. Partway through the barbecue, I realized, “These are conversations that would only make sense to military - both good and bad.” It was crazy how we all spoke the same language, even if we were in different branches and ranks, never served together, and didn’t even know each other.

Attorneys also have a shared language—terms like revocable living trust, pet trust, trustee, probate, personal representative, beneficiary, heir, etc. These terms are perfectly understandable between estate planning attorneys, but not every client is familiar with these terms. When a client is bombarded with what sounds like a foreign language—especially when they are already in a time of stress—it can leave them feeling confused, frustrated, and overwhelmed. As an estate planning attorney, it’s my job to explain to my clients what’s going on—to include them in that shared language by breaking it down into practical terms and clarifying what everything means—so my clients can make the important decisions they need to make.

Shared experiences and shared language can make a big difference in connecting with others, and with putting people at ease. I had a strange experience a while back, when I was speaking at one of The Great American Teach-In and suddenly realized: These kids weren’t even alive during 9/11. Talk about making someone feel ancient!

When I mentioned it to the teacher later, he said, “It’s their Pearl Harbor.”

Even for those of us who lived through 9/11, not everyone had the same experience. Civilians’ experiences differed from those in the military. Those who worked at the Pentagon had a different experience than I did in South Korea. People who were at ground zero had different experiences than people who were in Florida, and people who lost loved ones on 9/11 have different experiences than those who didn’t. Even so, we are able to unite on the shared language of having lived through 9/11, on understanding the gravity of what happened. Military can connect over what it was like to be military during that event.

Similarly, every client has distinct needs and unique experiences, so I try to explain everything they will need to know to navigate all the contingencies. Probate and legal issues can feel like a Pearl Harbor to some clients: It sounds awful, but it’s hard to truly understand until they’re in the middle of it. I try to paint different scenarios for my clients – some are funny, and some are downright scary, so they can make informed decisions about their estates.

At that barbeque with my military comrades, we marveled at the sheer amount of responsibility we were given at such young ages and joked about who in their right mind thought that was a good idea. We were forced to grow up quickly but even in retrospect, it didn’t seem like we could have ever been ready for the things we were charged with carrying out.

When I was 22 and deployed to Kuwait, I was responsible for multi-million-dollar communications equipment and things that ultimately impacted national security and I didn’t even know enough to file my own taxes. And I wasn’t the youngest person on my team!

One thing about being in the military is that while we work hard, we take time to play hard, too. I was looking through an old scrapbook the other day and came across some photos from my travels in the Air Force and couldn’t help but laugh at some of the things we did back then. It’s funny how a picture can bring back so many memories. I’m almost certain I was the reason for at least a handful of safety briefings in my day. And when I became a non-commissioned officer, several of my Airmen were responsible for safety briefings I had to give to others.

Our roles in the military came with huge responsibilities—and though we joke about them, we didn’t take them lightly. Those experiences made us who we are, but also gave us a different life experience. We spent lots of time away from our family and friends, missed holidays and birthdays, and more. Yet most of it, we wouldn’t trade for the world. It’s easy to get to talking to other prior military folks and forget that not everyone around us understands. It’s a family found through shared trauma and shared experience, and even if we’ve never met while serving, by the end of the night our kids will probably all be hugging each other goodbye, too.

In these times of reflection, I realize—it’s not so different from what I do now.

Being an estate planning attorney is a big responsibility, and not one I take lightly, to educate my clients and help them make those hard decisions: “Do I want this child to make medical decisions and financial decisions for me? If not, will they be resentful? Will the kid I’ve put in charge carry things out when the time comes, not freeze up or get analysis paralysis?” etc. Let’s face it: if we are only dependent on our kids to handle everything without proper guidance, most of us are out of luck. That’s not being hurtful, it’s true. It’s a tough conversation to tell your kids how you want things to play out when you no longer have capacity to tell them in the moment. Having an estate plan where everything is laid out and we’ve prepared for all the contingencies can make a big difference…and so can having someone you can trust to help you navigate those plans.

It’s a big responsibility to make sure my clients understand all the legal ramifications of their choices (or lack of choices), and to help people carry out their wishes, but it’s also rewarding. And if helping you keeps your family and friends from being able to use your specific situation as a cautionary tale or “safety briefing” for what not to do in the future, then I would call my mission a success!

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