The covid-19 pandemic has forced many families, business owners, and company leaders to focus on the pressing short-term needs of the business to survive. Life has a way of doing that – immediate concerns take precedence over the longer-term view and sometimes even over more important concerns we have. Some call this the “tyranny of the urgent.”
At the height of the initial surge of covid-19 cases in New York, a doctor was on the news talking about the horrors she was seeing at her hospital in New York City. She confessed that she and her husband, also a doctor, had sat down the previous night at home and written wills. They had several children, and with the swell of uncertainty and facing their own mortality, they quickly set out their wishes. She was indeed embarrassed to say they hadn’t completed their wills before.
Is one evening during a pandemic the perfect time to write a will? Perhaps not, but there really is no perfect time, other than right now.
But this story also highlights a larger issue that we generally prefer to ignore: we are always in a time of uncertainty. Most of us just don’t notice it day to day.
“Nothing but uncertainty is certain. Circumstances come together, only to fall apart moments or months later. And then, in a flash, we must rise up and regain our footing. In the rearview mirror, I now see so clearly what escaped me then: it’s not that the ground underneath me was suddenly shifting; it’s that it is never still. That’s part of the work of my journey – getting comfortable with life’s groundlessness.”
—Alicia Keys, More Myself: A Journey
In one way or another, our current circumstances – living through a pandemic – are causing each of us, perhaps in different ways, to stop, take a breath, evaluate life, and take a break from the usual grind of the day to day to contemplate life. Perhaps the forced time at home for many, and the sudden baking of bread and returning to simple ways of doing things close to home, has changed how we look at life right now. This pause allows the brain to suddenly have some free time to stop and evaluate.
- Where am I at in life right now and where would I like to be?
- Am I running my life by conscious decision or have I fallen into the trap of tending to the day-to-day craziness of life without taking the time to step back and dream and plan for the future?
Life generally seems to speed by, so if there can be a silver lining to living through a pandemic, I think it is the time many people are taking to step back and re-evaluate whether they are living the life they want.
When it comes to business and estate planning, there is never a perfect time to create a perfect plan, and circumstances will always change. Many clients have stated that maybe next year will be a good time to do the planning, because that’s when they might be ready to retire or sell the business. 2020 has certainly made it apparent that business owners need to be prepared for anything, anytime. Most business plans likely did not include a contingency for a sudden 70% drop in sales, or for how hard it would be to lay off staff and wonder when, if ever, you could bring them back to work.
IS ONE EVENING DURING A PANDEMIC THE PERFECT TIME TO WRITE A WILL? PERHAPS NOT, BUT THERE REALLY IS NO PERFECT TIME, OTHER THAN RIGHT NOW.
We are being reminded that we must make plans with the information we have on hand at a given point in time, and then be ready to pivot as new information becomes available. This reminds me somewhat of the annual federal budget announcements. Each year we await the budget to see how new rules might affect our business and estate planning. And Canada’s current economic position heightens this sense – with the amount of government money already spent and more to come, business owners are likely wary of tax increases in the future.
But we must forge ahead and plan based on what we know now, or risk getting stuck in a perpetual waiting game. Getting stuck in indecision with an old plan or no plan at all can paralyze a business. Businesses that can become comfortable with the certainty of uncertainty will have the upper hand in making plans and then implementing a system for continuous review and improvement.
Since businesses are now moving out of the initial covid-19 reality and determining the implications for the future, it’s likely a good time to discuss some of the big issues:
- Has the value of the business or family assets been affected? How will this change some planning parameters for owners and families?
- Retirement – or the next phase of life – is looming closer for many business owners.
- Next-generation family members may have had their careers negatively affected, and their lives have now moved forward with their own families, plans, concerns, and opportunities.
- Children (and grandchildren) are growing up and may be wondering about whether the family business is an option for them, whether it be working in, leading, or owning it over time, but these conversations may not have happened yet.
With less travel currently happening for both business and pleasure, now may be an opportune time to get all the stakeholders in a business or family together to have the discussions that have been put off by life’s busy-ness.
Many families and businesses will benefit from including a trusted advisor in that meeting to facilitate healthy, open conversations and add formality. A skilled and objective third party has a great advantage in managing awkward or challenging topics and difficult conversations because they are not “in” the family or the business and have no vested interest other than helping the participants get to a successful outcome in a positive way. Families also take comfort in hearing that they are not the only ones grappling with difficult decisions and that many others have gone down the same path and found success.
As you navigate the ongoing impacts of covid-19 in your life, family, and business, we want to encourage you to not lose sight of the strategic and planning issues that will be the most important factors over time in determining the long-term success and sustainability of the things you care most deeply about.
First published in the December 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.