One of the rules around my own family deals with the obvious. That “obvious” is that at some point, we will all make mistakes. As humans, we have the tendency to throw down the judgment card on other people. We would like to judge that others are worse than us, or judge that their bad is worse than our bad. We can certainly identify ‘their bad’ but we don’t like to forgive ‘their bad’.

I’d like to think this is only a child’s problem, because kids have a hard time forgiving one another. But let’s be serious. Adults sometimes have a harder time with it than kids do. So around our house, when somebody does something wrong, we expect the conversation to include a statement and a question. The statement is sometimes hard for one person to say to the other.

The statement is simply, “I’m sorry.”

That statement is easy for the offended to hear but the challenge is coming. “I am sorry” is followed by a corresponding question.

The corresponding question is “Will you forgive me?”

It might be hard for someone to say, “I’m Sorry”, but sometimes it’s even harder for the offended to answer the question, “Yes, I forgive you” when it is asked.

So what does that have to do with estate planning?

A while ago I was working with a family in Illinois and dealing with three generations of families. Grandma and Grandpa owned the ground and they wanted to provide a pathway for their only son and then their grandson to farm the ground. It all made sense to me and I thought I was doing a pretty good job of explaining options. I thought that when I got to the end of the explanation there would be a few questions, and then this would all be pretty simple to complete.

They continued, and I listened to stories about some hard times, and tried to get everybody’s point of view but I started figuring out there were still some missing pieces. How could it be so challenging to get 300 acres down a couple generations? They seemed like nice people, but I’ve been in these situations before, so I just stayed patient, thinking that there must be something that I’m missing.

There hadn’t been much emotion to this point so I asked if they were ready to move forward and start implementing what we had talked about. Then all of a sudden Grandpa said, “I don’t know how we can do this for our grandson because of something that happened in the past.” Then he looked directly at his grandson and pointed at him saying, “And you know what I’m talking about.” The tension in the room went up instantly and there was a short exchange of comments, but I still didn’t know what really happened or what incident was being referenced.

So I kept the peace and then the grandson stopped the conversation and said, “Here’s what he’s talking about.” He told everyone in the room about an event that occurred years earlier. He admitted he was wrong and looked at his grandpa and said “I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”. Until that moment, in grandpa’s mind, proper apologies had not been made and he had not been able to forgive. It then became clear to me that in spite of any plan that I could magically put together, it wasn’t going anywhere until this issue was cleared up.

Families always think they’re unique when they tell me about their problems. They often say things like, “I bet you have never seen a situation like ours” or “are we the craziest family you have ever met?”. I smile, because I have met a lot of “unique” families and every situation is so different. I also know, that just about every family has something hidden in the closet. Most of us have said or done something that we probably regret and wish we wouldn’t have done.

Fortunately, a couple thousand years ago a guy came along and gave his life and forgave us for all of our past screw-ups and even our future screw-ups if we will only ask for forgiveness. So I figure I have to forgive others since He forgave me.

So what happened next with this family? I left that meeting that day with a plan for that family clear as a bell in my head. Everything in regards to moving ahead with transitioning the land was “right there”. Now I’m not a preacher, but I clearly explained that going to the attorney and putting together the plan was not the next step. The next step was for them to clear up the forgiveness issue. The ball was in Grandpa’s court. I waited for him to answer the grandson’s question with a “yes”. Grandpa remained silent. Eventually I left that day realizing that if he could not forgive his grandson than they could forget planning for farm continuation.

Is it possible that there’s an issue like that in your family that is preventing you from moving forward with a much-needed estate plan? If so, do you need to say, “I’m sorry”? Or if someone asks, “Will you forgive me?” will you say… “yes”?