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Retirement savings

June 29, 2018

Writing your financial autobiography: Handling an inheritance

The chapters of your life associated with loss tie emotion to money in a way that few experiences can. Expert guidance can help you get through them.

When my grandfather passed away in 2014 and left me a small but significant inheritance, I felt grief, of course. But I also felt guilt over not being able to see him before he died and for the relief I felt as I realized the inheritance could potentially pay off my student debt. The pressure to use the remaining funds in a way he would have wanted also lingered for months, triggering anxiety with each purchase I made.

While I didn’t know it at the time, such internal conflicts are common when people receive an inheritance and are a normal part of grieving.

Ultimately, I invested in my business and wrote a new chapter in my life that might not have been possible otherwise. But seeking help both to sort through my emotions and to create a financial plan could have saved me a lot of worry and uncertainty.

When you’re writing the chapters of your financial autobiography linked most closely to loss – whether that’s centred around receiving an inheritance or making plans for your own estate – you’ll likely need emotional support as well as financial guidance along the way.

Here are a few things to think about as you set out on that journey.

Focus on your feelings at first

The first few months after the death of someone you love can hit you hard, especially if the loss was unexpected.

Accept your emotions as they come, advises Rory Nicol, a licensed psychotherapist based in Kitchener, Ontario. Anger and guilt are just as normal as sorrow and anxiety, and there’s no “right” way to feel.

While the executor is settling the estate, seek the support you need from close friends and family, or from a mental-health professional who will listen without judgement.

Gathering your family to go through your loved one’s belongings may help you sort through your feelings as well, says Nicol. “Every item has a story, and experiencing those memories helps you process the emotions, too. It helps you say goodbye.”

See through the emotions with a financial plan

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to remember that managing a significant inheritance during an emotionally fraught time is a daunting task for anyone.

“A lot of people, especially in a time of grieving, just don't know what to do or where to start,” says Aviva North,1 a Sun Life Financial advisor based in Toronto. “Setting up and following a financial plan can remove a lot of the emotion [from the decision-making process].”

An experienced advisor may be able to give you the perspective you need to approach your inheritance in a way that best serves your individual short- and long-term goals.

Giving back on a budget

Inheritance need not always be simply about practical spending. In fact, a thoughtful splurge on yourself or others might offer just the emotional release you need.

One option: charitable giving. Think budget-friendly, but personal. Help sponsor a tree-planting in your loved one’s favourite park. Or perhaps fund a one-time scholarship at a local community centre. My grandfather fought in World War II, so my family purchased a commemorative brick at the Juno Beach Centre.

Don’t forget to honour your loved one by enjoying some of the money as well. Take the family trip you’ve always envisioned. Fund the passion project you never had the money for. Your memories will last forever – and will forever connect you to your loved one.

Make plans for your own estate

Losing someone close to us often serves as a bracing reminder of our own mortality, which can be a positive thing. The truth is, estate planning is just as much a part of routine financial planning as saving for retirement or buying your first home.

“People assume that estate planning is for the elderly or the wealthy, but it really just means dealing with your estate in the way that you want to,” North explains. “If you want to leave a legacy, it's important that you get ahead of it.”

Your first step may be to connect with an estate and financial planning services specialist and assemble the right team of executor and guardians to handle your estate, she advises. A specialist can help you anticipate fees and taxes that could be due on your estate to avoid any unpleasant surprises for your heirs, and ensure the money is distributed the way you intend.

After all, your estate isn’t just about you. It could help the people you love write the next chapters in their own lives, too.

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