A Matter of Trust: The value of money after death



It is natural to assume that after decades of marriage, financial ups and downs, raising children and spoiling grandchildren, there would be no major surprises left to stimulate a relationship.

At least I thought so, but then my wife and I got around to writing our wills, and boy, did we get “stimulated”.

As a forward to the wills we created a trust.  This is generally a necessary step for anyone with assets.  In the long run it saves money and time. But it comes at a cost: namely after the death of the first spouse, the survivor is placed in operational handcuffs; in the trust document there are constraints on what he or she can do with the valuables and the money.

Now, I need to back up a bit here and state that I currently work as a Trust Administrator, having got my fiduciary license eight years ago. This is a reflection of a mid-life crisis. My motivation was propelled forward by my experience as a teenager when my father died suddenly, not having carried out any estate planning and he left behind, what is technically called “a fucking mess,” which took lawyers, accountants, and the IRS guys many expensive years to sort out.

So, in my work I occasionally get front row seats to  some real horror stories. I see lawyers get rich as family members litigate each other to death over cars, beach houses or paintings, in other words: stupid shit (another technical term).

As my wife and I got to the drafting our trust, everything I thought I knew about her went out the window.  And what I learned was, to put it mildly, deeply disturbing. In fact, it was so upsetting that what kept playing over and over again in my head was the Bob Seeger line, “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

My aim was to tie up all potential loose ends.  Specifically, I wanted there to be restrictions on how much could be spent on caregiving, and on gifts to second spouses.  I wanted to preserve as much of our assets as is possible so that our kids would enjoy an inheritance; I had a vision of them eating foie gras at a Michelin 3-star restaurant near the Jardin des Tuileries and toasting our legacy with a glass of Roederer Cristal.    

But my wife simply said, “Fuck them.  I made my own money, let them make their money.  We gave them plenty over the years. I want to spend it all.”

“But do you want everything to go to a cynical, greedy caregiver?”  I pleaded. I was referring to the Smith Trust, a situation where a lonely widower was the recipient of a handful of hand jobs in return for what was a good chunk of his daughters’ inheritance.

“She gave him a good time when he needed it.”

“So, if I die before you, you would blow our money on some good-looking steroid case?”

“Maybe, but then it will be MY MONEY.”

“It will, in truth and fact, be assets of the Trust.”

“Screw the Trust!  I want to have a good time.”

“But these are your babies.  You nurtured them from your own breasts.”

“What do you care what I do with the money?  You’ll be dead anyway. And if I die first, then you can go right ahead and be a saint.  I will be nurturing the worms and won’t give a shit.”

To say that this shocked me is a grave understatement.  I think that the Richter scale would have to be recalibrated upward in order to quantify how much this shook me up.  She is a retired doctor, a person who was compulsively responsible, a hard worker who resented spendthrifts and wastrels, a borderline saint herself.  This process revealed to me a side of her that I had never thought existed.

It’s not like, if I am the first to die, I would want her to become transformed into a black-shawled, mustachioed grandmother, perpetually in mourning, muttering to herself as she whiled away her time on a bench at a bus stop.  No, I want her to be in a position to enjoy life and to indulge herself, but not to waste money, or worse, have it stolen away by some money-grubbing opportunist, charlatan, or mountebank.

It’s true that my perspective may be clouded by my previous experience; I inherited a modest amount of money when my mother died in 1999.  The estate was split among her three children. The amount I received wasn’t enough to change our lifestyle, but it did become a pleasant cushion.  On the other hand, my wife’s parents had six kids. Her father was a high-level government employee and an adjunct professor at a university. He had a very respectable, but not terribly lucrative, career.  He is now well into in his nineties and will likely leave her very little, if any, inheritance.

This was not only stressful but professionally degrading.  Since I was involved with trusts and had seen and scorned this type of ludicrous behavior, I thought I would be able to easily immunize us and protect our relationship from these emotionally-charged issues. I was very wrong.

The legal bills were mounting–and eventually, I had trouble looking at myself in the mirror many mornings.

We had to work something out.

In the weeks that followed, I became what I disrespected most– my own nightmare client.  I, who should have known better, was the co-star of an emotional, ego-driven drama. Instead of enlivening dinner table conversation by telling my wife about the bad behavior I had observed that day, we sank into a sullen truce, hardly enjoying our meals.   Some nights, as I tossed and turned in a vain attempt to sleep, I considered absconding with my share of the money and moving to Tangier where I would disappear into the impenetrable warrens of the Kasbah. I even went so far as to investigate the process of setting up a bank account overseas.  And I swear that she got up more than once to consult her old medical school pathology textbook, honing in on the untraceable poisons section of the chapter on toxicology.

This was excruciatingly painful; we had trouble looking at each other. Food didn’t taste as good, wine lost its bouquet. Habits and common needs kept us going, providing minimal nourishment.  We were living in a house, not a home. After too many days of avoidance we sat down and discussed things in a rational manner.  I told her that it hurt me to think that our assets might be squandered. She said that she felt hurt because she thought that she was up against a restraint similar to a glass ceiling, an insult that she had repeatedly experienced as a doctor.  To me it was an issue of professional pride, money, and control, albeit from the grave; to her it was an issue of personal pride based on professional experiences, and control over money, a control that she wanted to be exercised by the living.

We listed each of our differences and prioritized them.  She wanted independence, indulgence, and unrestricted freedom.   I wanted order and generosity. We made compromises; I gave in a bit on access to principal and she gave in on bringing on a co-trustee after one of us dies; we volunteered our children for this role.  Also, we agreed on mechanisms limiting spending on caregiving and on restrictions on gifting to non-family members. This wasn’t easy, and it was no longer only about money; it was about influence and power too.  But, most importantly, and shocking after 30+ years of marriage, we got to know each other better. We got to the point where we explored, probed,and penetrated our approaches to money, mortality, and legacy with enthusiasm, excitement and glee; just as, years ago, we first explored, probed, and penetrated each other’s naked, sweaty bodies.  We went on tangents, fantasizing on living forever or not waking up in the morning. We assessed our children’s lives and their possibilities and how narcissistic we were to impose our sensibilities onto them. We accepted that they rarely listened to us, so where the fuck did we get the gall to think that they would show us any more consideration once we were dead?    

We went  through some tough times, but came out better for the experience.  It renewed and refreshed our relationship, something we had not thought possible after so many years.  

Now, when we take our morning coffee and we discuss the coming day there seems to be one fewer cloud over it.  We make sure that each day is the best day of the rest of our lives.

Stuart Jacobson
Stuart Jacobson, who has worked as a laboratory scientist, baker, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, and currently, a Trust Administrator, started telling autobiographical stories in public two years ago, shortly after he moved to Los Angeles.


  1. Stuart – your story is so articulate, emotionally poetic, concisely-worded, exposing real emotion and a fearless delving into truth about oneself, throwing protective (face-saving) caution to the wind, and in such a matter-of-fact narrative. Simply put, you put it simply. thank you for sharing this


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