What’s Your Unfinished Business?

This post is coming to you on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah, marking the start of the year 5783 in the Hebrew calendar. A central theme during these Holy Days is a call to action, symbolized during our prayer service by the loud blasts of the shofar (ram’s horn). We reenact this ancient ritual to wake us up, literally and figuratively. The sounding of the shofar ushers in the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

This theme of a wake-up call brings to mind a sermon I heard recently in New York. Our daughter Lizzy and her family moved back to New York a few weeks ago after a 3-year chapter in Dallas. Laurie and I went to check out their new surroundings, including their new place of worship, the Alt-Neu (Yiddish for “Old-New”) Synagogue. At Shabbat services, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt alerted us that this is the time of year to “get your affairs in order.” When the doctor tells you that, it’s bad news. This time, the warning is coming not from the doctor, but from the Almighty. The rabbi asked us to think about what that phrase means to each of us. He challenged us to ponder the question: “What’s your unfinished business?”

There are so many aspects to this question, but as an estate planning lawyer, having your “affairs in order” brings to my mind the importance of having a Will. If you don’t have a Will, you should. And, if you have one, is it up-to-date?

I’ll share some shocking statistics. It’s been reported that 73% of those who die in Texas each year die without a Will. Even more startling: 46% of high-net-worth parents have not executed a Will.

Most know the reasons a Will is important, but I’ll recap a few highlights:

  • You designate who will inherit your assets instead of letting state law direct it.
  • You select the person to serve as executor to oversee the passage of your assets.
  • If you have minor children, you name the person to serve as guardian of your kids (the most important provision of all).
  • If you own a business, the Will addresses who will own your business after you’re gone.

That last point ties into the segment I’m now doing on Business Succession Planning. In the last few weeks, I’ve been spotlighting the need to plan for the transition of your business. There are two different elements to address: (1) ownership of your business and (2) management of your business. Ownership is directed by your Will and/or trusts, where you designate who will own your company after you’re gone. Possibilities include leaving the ownership interests to a trust for your family, controlled by a trustee whom you appoint to be in charge. It can also entail creating voting and non-voting stock, so that control rests in hands you deem best suited. Your plan may include a Buy-Sell Agreement, outlining the terms for a buy-out if a family member exits the business. These concepts deal with who will own the company, but that’s different from who will manage it. In a Business Succession Plan, you also address who will run the business, which may or may not be the same persons as the owners. Business owners need both: a Will to direct who will own the company, and a Business Succession Plan to designate who will manage it.

Every person who is 18 or older needs a Will, otherwise the state has one for you that you may not like. Even if you have a Living Trust, you still need a “Pourover Will” to “pour over” any assets you own at death into the Living Trust. Without a Will, estate administration will be far more cumbersome.

As you heed this wake-up call from the shofar and make your own list of unfinished business, give some thought to whether you have an up-to-date Will. And if you own a business, take the extra step to create a Business Succession Plan. This season of reflection is the perfect time to get your affairs in order.

To one and all, I send the Hebrew greeting “L’Shana Tova” (“To a Good Year”).

Marvin E. Blum

Marvin Blum sounding the shofar on the Jewish New Year, a wake-up call to get your affairs in order.