Caregiving Chronicles: There's a Will, but No Way

A version of this blog first appeared in BLAC Magazine.

Last will and testament photo.jpg

In August, I lost two stars in my universe. I shared one star with the rest of the world: Detroit's queen, Aretha Franklin. But I couldn't bear to watch the spectacle of her day-long funeral on Aug. 31, because another star in my sky, my 96-year-old aunt, died just three days before. The women had very little in common except they both exemplified the word "diva." But in the end, they also shared something that seems to plague the broader black community – an inability to plan for their own mortality. 

We know that Franklin, whose death was far from sudden, died without a will. Her $80 million estate is now wending its way through court. My aunt wasn't worth millions, but she, too, watched death coming and did little to prepare. Despite friends and family begging her for years to get her papers together, to move into safer housing (she died only two weeks after finally moving into assisted living), and to let someone help with her finances, she refused until it was nearly too late.

It's an old story in the black community: Folks aging with no plan for their care, even as they become increasingly unable to provide for themselves. Folks failing to pass on property to their loved ones, opting instead to let their modest assets get eaten away by lawyers in probate court. Folks arguing that "you can't take it with you," without understanding that's exactly why you should give it to someone else. Guess why African-Americans make up only a fraction of the wealthy one percent? It's because every generation in the black community must start from scratch financially. For us, intergenerational wealth, the most important determinant of long-term financial stability, is almost non-existent.

Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank published a study about race and wealth. The result was as predictable as it was sad. "White families stand out as the most likely to have received an inheritance or other major gift – 26 percent of white families have received an inheritance, compared with less than 10 percent of black families and Hispanic families," said the report. "Most white households (71 percent) report being able to get $3,000 from family or friends in a financial emergency, compared with less than half of Hispanic and black households (49 percent and 43 percent, respectively)."

Earl G. Graves Sr., founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, said it best: "Nearly 70 percent of (African-Americans) have no will or estate plan in place. Not only does this put our ability to transfer wealth to future generations at risk, it also comes at a tremendous cost," he wrote in a 2015 editorial in his magazine. "Merely buying enough life insurance to cover the costs of our burials may have been acceptable for our parents, but it's not even close to good enough for our children and grandchildren." Certainly, many of us feel that we don't have much to pass on, so why bother? (If you have a house, a car, some jewelry, a spouse and/or at least one kid, it behooves you to think about what will happen to your meager possessions when you head to the hereafter.)

But social class doesn't account for the lack of estate planning in our community. Ask Prince. Or Barry White. Or James Brown, Bob Marley, or, yes, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They all died without a will. Perhaps it comes down to a toxic mixture of fear of death and financial illiteracy. Granted, the barriers to attaining that literacy can be substantial. Aside from not having access to lawyers or financial planners, we have no tradition of building and passing on wealth. If your parents refused to talk to you about their financial situation, about their care in old age, about their assets and their dying wishes, how likely are you to know what to do when it's your time to plan for death?

That's why I recently tried to talk to my son openly about this issue. "When should I make a will?" asked the 30-year-old, who is married and doesn't yet have children. "It's never too early to start thinking," I told him. "But especially when you guys buy a home and start a family, you should get something down in writing." He considered my advice quietly. "Do you have a will?" Gulp. Well, kind of. You see, what had happened was … "Um, yeah, but I haven't updated it in 25 years," I admitted, red-faced. Guess what I'm doing this week?

WOMEN'S RIGHTS: #ChoiceVoices are Watching "The Choice!"

Dear Defenders of Choice,

Response to the film, “The Choice,” has been overwhelming!!!! Please continue to share this link on your networks. Never has women’s reproductive health care been more precarious, as the Supreme Court lurches toward overturning Roe v. Wade. “The Choice” is a stark reminder about what truly hangs in the balance. It’s about time we focused upon the stories of the countless real women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. If we don’t talk about it and share our stories, the procedure will never be accepted as the mainstream treatment that it is. One in four American women will have an abortion over a lifetime.

Speaking of which, many of you have chosen to share your journeys with me privately  or in emails to ourchoicefilm@gmail.com, like these messages below:

“I just watched your film. Powerful. I had to borrow the money. Friend took me. Told my mom months later. It was a friend’s boyfriend who forced himself on me. #metoo Thank you.”

Jacalyn.png

Or

“It could have been my story in your film. When I got pregnant, I was headed for college, not teen motherhood. I never told the father that I was pregnant; we had no relationship. I think about it often as we still have mutual friends.”

Or even this, from a male acquaintance:

“(The film) was emotional because it completely caught me off guard. I was never conscious of anyone who had gone through an abortion before, so I never had any idea about what is involved as a girl/woman is contemplating it, going through it, as it happens, and then dealing with it going forward. I suppose all of the experiences are uniquely individual to a point, but there are probably a lot of commonly shared feelings, thoughts and emotions, too. I can definitely appreciate the need to protect the right to choose.”

Defenders, now is not the time to slow down. Fifty-five percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Nearly 70 percent say that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Abortion should not be a political flashpoint. It should be a health care option that is discussed between a woman and her doctor. As we speak, many are protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They know what’s at stake; they know that we will never go back. Roe v. Wade must remain the law of the land.

As the midterms approach, we cannot relent on our goal to make sure abortion remains safe, accessible and legal (while we also address the biggest reason for abortions: unplanned pregnancies).

PLEASE SHARE “THE CHOICE” WIDELY.  E-mail it privately to friends and advocates, post it publicly to social media, or show it in groups including voter education forums and women’s rights gatherings.

Become one of the #ChoiceVoices!

#ChoiceVoices (5).png