One thing retired people do constantly, I’ve discovered, is check on their net worth. It’s fun—at least when the market is doing well—and it helps pass the time, which you’re going to have a lot of. I still vividly remember my father, sitting at the desk in his den for several hours each day, carefully going over financial statements and investment newsletters and having a grand old time. On good days he’d come out gleefully rubbing his hands together. On bad days he’d come out and take a nap.
Your net worth becomes very important the older you get because it’s the total sum of your life’s accomplishments. It defines you. It used to be your job. Or your salary. Or your talent. Or your future prospects. Now it’s just this one number. It’s like a credit score for the elderly.
There are all kinds of ways to accumulate net worth, and financial planners are full of strategies involving 401(k)s, IRAs, the bond market, real estate trusts—you name it. What they don’t involve a lot of time with is the oldest strategy of all—inheritance.
Inheriting money is not easy. Just ask any trophy wife. You earn that money. All those years of putting up with the old geezer, of running his household and keeping yourself in tiptop shape so he won’t be tempted to find a replacement. And then his final decline into senescence and drool, with you keeping an eagle eye on the nurses so they don’t make off with the jewelry and the electronics, all the while struggling to present just the right degree of martyrdom. It takes its toll.
Inheriting money from parents is a little easier, thank God. Unless you’re a total wastrel and ne’er-do-well, chances are you’ll get the same amount as your siblings. I suggest you accept this fact gracefully, even though it can be grossly unfair. My own sister, for instance, married a very rich inventor—remember the veggie burger?—and then gave birth to two thoracic surgeons, and she got exactly the same amount as me. Unfair? I think so, too. And then to add insult to injury, the thoracic surgeons each got a cut. I was livid for months. It entirely spoiled the funeral.
Inheriting money from friends is even trickier. Problem No. 1—they’re probably the same age as you, so it’s going to be a long, long wait. And so often, the amount these friends are leaving you—well, it’s more like a token of friendship rather than something that’s going to make a difference. Linda DesMarais, for instance, is leaving me a mirrored chest I once admired in her dining room. I certainly appreciate the thought, but let’s get real here. There I am in the nursing home,
age 92, and this enormous mirrored credenza shows up via UPS. What on earth am I supposed to do with it? Still and all, I feel that leaving me things should be encouraged, and every time I see Linda, my first question is “How are you feeling, dear?”
But for every mirrored credenza there’s a broken heart—the inheritance that got away. For me it was my friend—well, let’s call him Larry. He was enormously rich, almost fantastically rich. Judging from things he’d let slip, and from going through his brokerage statements when he was out swimming laps in the pool, I would estimate that his net worth was $143 million. He would be getting double that when his 97-year-old father died. And he had no kids, just an ex-wife who hated his guts. All the money was going to his nieces and nephews.
I spent years scheming to get my hands on that money. Oh, I didn’t want it all. I had a specific goal in mind: one million dollars. That seemed reasonable, even appropriate.
And let me tell you something. Larry never had a better friend. I stuck by him through thick and thin. His drinking problem. His arrests. His trips to rehab. His crazy girlfriends—all after the same thing I was. Well, I outsmarted—and outlasted—them all.
And over the years he started to mellow. We would have late-night conversations in smoky bars—he loved smoky bars—and I would gradually steer the conversation around to what he could do with his money. How it could be a force for good. How it could help the arts and medicine and poor children. And how it could even reward those of us who loved him and had put up with him for years.
Then one night it finally happened. The magic words. “Gee. Maybe I should leave some money to you.”
Even though it was very late and I hate smoky bars, we sat there for another hour as I made sure this idea settled in his mind. And when I finally got home, I slept the sleep of the saved. All my financial problems were over. I would finally have a net worth I could be proud of, providing Larry died in a timely manner.
It happened to be more timely than I could have possibly anticipated. Yes, two weeks later Larry kicked the bucket. Too many nights in too many smoky bars. The piercing scream that emanated from my grief-stricken heart was all the more piercing because I just knew that he hadn’t had time to change his will. And I was right. The nieces and nephew were getting everything.
And to add insult to injury, he owed me $5,000. Yes, I had done some work for him. It was almost completed. But there was no invoice, no contract, just a gentlemen’s agreement. I thought of submitting a bill to the estate and was actually planning to do so until I found out that scores of people were doing the same thing. Yes, every lowlife, every scam artist Larry had ever met was trying to cash in on his death. Well, I’m bigger than that.
I’m now casting around for a new rich friend, preferably somebody very old but still able to make out a will that won’t be questioned in court. I’d prefer a non-smoker without nieces and nephews. Heck, I’ll marry a rich old lady. Or with our new marriage laws, a rich old man. All I’ve got now is a mirrored credenza—and my foolish integrity.
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