Humans dominate the animal kingdom partly because we possess physical and mental abilities to change our environment and behavior deliberately. More than that, a person's values elevate the person above the crude comfort and self-preservation instincts that define other creatures. The power to conceive and do the "right thing" enables a person to have moral or ethical character. People display character by what they do or do not do each day. When a person's words and deeds match, they display one kind of character, but when the two differ, they display something else.
Character questions arise often in nursing home planning and in the administration of estates, trusts, and guardianships. For example, a person may say, "Who would know that I have this asset if I don't tell them?" Forget for a moment that failure to disclose an asset on a Medicaid application or transfer tax return (for federal gift, estate, or generation-skipping transfer tax) is a felony punishable by years in prison -- a person should consider how this thought fits with the person's moral and ethical values.
These wise saying express the character to which we should all aspire:
"Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching." C.S. Lewis
"The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching." John Wooden
"Character is not only doing the right thing when no one is looking, it's doing the right thing when everyone is looking. It's being willing to do the right thing even when it costs more than you want to pay." Michael Josephson
Many honorable people demonstrate admirable character without fanfare. They influence our communities by teaching virtuous values to younger generations and contributing to organizations that encourage and reward faithful and moral character.
Estate plans can help promote integrity and character. For instance, a plan may offer financial incentives for prodigal beneficiaries to seek redemptive lifestyles. Plans can also encourage family philanthropy to build our communities' strengths and displace greed and malice from this world.
Everyone has a plan. A strategy guides each person's activities from dawn to dusk. Regardless of the time devoted to a daily schedule, personal behavior forms a pattern of thoughts and actions. Hindsight reveals whether a person's behavior reflects the financial, social, and moral values by which the person wants to live. It all starts with a plan to get out of bed and "do good," and ends after a day filled with faithful execution of that plan.
Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and Jeff is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator and was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.
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