How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning penned those famous lines around 1845 in a sonnet dedicated to her future husband, Robert Browning. The sentiment has been quoted so often it has become a part of our popular culture, seen in everything from Hallmark cards to Bugs Bunny cartoons.
While most of us are familiar with the opening stanza of the poem, I suspect that few of us can recall all fourteen lines of the sonnet’s iambic pentameter. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, take a moment to read the entire poem:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
This poem is a love letter, written in an era where people sat in contemplation by candle light with nothing to distract them but books, lively conversation, or perhaps even pen and paper. Not a modern, cheap, disposable ball-point pen mind you, but a finely-tipped fountain pen which applies ink to paper via a method that is essentially a controlled leak. The ink, once applied to paper, would have to be blotted dry to avoid smears and smudges.
When was the last time you sat down, shut out the distractions of modern society, and wrote a letter to someone you loved? Not an email, not a text, not a Facebook post or Tweet, but an honest-to-goodness paper letter?
We rarely take the time to express our feelings to our loved ones the way the future Mrs. Browning did when she wrote the lines quoted above. While we may not write many letters these days, an estate plan can be a final expression of love, a love letter of sorts, to the people we care about most.
Think about it: the one person who will not be around to benefit from your estate planning is you. Getting your affairs in order is not a selfish act, it is a gift to your loved ones. And I’m not just talking about monetary gifts.
For example, what if you were in a terrible car accident, and your family had to make the decision whether to continue to keep you alive using machines or other treatments that would serve to prolong your life, but that would not cure you. In those conversations, the topic usually turns to what you “would have wanted.” Without written instructions, your family is left to guess whether you would want to be kept alive indefinitely, or whether you prefer to be allowed to die a natural death. (If you’re familiar with the famous Terry Shaivo case from the 1990’s, her family spent several years debating whether Terry “would have wanted” to be kept alive using machines, even though she was permanently unconscious).
Once we leave this earth, an estate plan is also an opportunity to give gifts of property to the people we care about. They may be sentimental gifts, like family heirlooms, or they may be monetary gifts. They may even be gifts of education, ensuring that children or grandchildren go to college. You might even leave a gift of motivation—conditioning such gifts on achieving certain goals, like a minimum GPA, for example.
Every person’s estate planning goals will of course be unique. Every family is unique. That is why you, and only you, can adequately craft a final expression of love to the people you care about. Most love letters are written by the young, but you shouldn’t assume that estate planning is only for the old, the sick, or the dying. To the contrary, the best time to draft your final love letter to your family is while you are strong of body and sharp of mind.
This year, skip the flowers and chocolate, turn off the TV, shut down the cellphone, and write a letter to someone you love.
Raley Wiggins received his J.D., cum laude, from the University of Alabama School of Law, where he served as an editor of the Alabama Law Review and published his first scholarly article in the area of wills and estate planning. In addition, he spent two semesters with the Elder Law Clinic. He has been admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the Northern, Southern, and Middle Districts of Alabama, respectively. He has also been accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs to represent veterans, their spouses, and their dependents with the presentation, prosecution and appeal of claims for VA benefits.
Alabama Estate Planning Attorneys Steve Wiggins and Raley Wiggins with Red Oak Legal, P.C. assist clients in Tuscaloosa, Northport, Brookwood, Moundville, Holt, Eutaw, Greensboro, Marion, Centreville, Carrolton, Reform, Gordo, Livingston, Bessemer, Fayette, Jasper, Montgomery, Prattville, Wetumka, Auburn, Millbrook, Pike Road, Union Springs, Troy and the surrounding areas with Estate Planning, Elder Law, Business Succession, Asset Protection, Long-Term Care, Medicaid, VA Pension Planning, Litigation, and Probate and Estate Administration.
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