WILLS AND WORDS: FAMILY DINNER EDITION (an estate planner's chronicle)

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THE OPINION: Family Dinner is a powerful vehicle that strengthens families and enhances a discussion of any subject matter.

THE HYPOTHESIS: Family Dinner can not only enhance a discussion of estate planning (money and death), but it can also serve to strengthen the entire estate planning process.

THE RESEARCHER:  An Oak Park parent and attorney (sole practitioner) who has discovered the benefits of family dinner and the value of possessing an estate plan. 

THE METHOD:  Four essays of analysis (once a month).


Essay #1
The Power of a Spaghetti Dinner


As a parent of four children, there is only one piece of advice I have for new parents.  Family Dinner.  There is a long list of benefits of family dinner as told by many researchers including a Harvard-based family dinner blog.  Kids do better in school, they have higher self-esteem, a better sense of resilience, lower risk of behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, obesity, and the list goes on.  A regular mealtime has been found to be a more powerful predictor of high standardized testing than time in school or doing homework. 


Why is family dinner so magical?  It is the most reliable way for a family to connect.  Family dinner provides a calm and comfortable environment for families to engage in conversation and focus on each other. This daily connection builds momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.  Positive family connection helps to avoid family conflict and leads to a happier life. 


Family conflict is the biggest threat to successful estate planning.  A strong bond between siblings cemented in their youth will help decades later to avoid family drama when settling their parent’s estate.  Plus, family dinner provides parents the opportunity to gradually and continuously talk with their children about important subject matters like money and even death. 


A conversation about an allowance can over the years segue into topics like college tuition, charitable giving and inherited IRAs.  Basic discussions during childhood of difficult subjects (like the death of a family pet) in the comfortable and safe environment of family dinner will serve as building blocks to support more adult conversations (such as a family member’s death and estate planning) as the family grows older.  


Frankly, some of my best family discussions and happiest times occurred at the family dinner table both as a child, and as a parent.  I believe family dinner helped forge a strong sibling bond with my brother that led to a harmonious settlement of my mother’s estate. 


Certainly, not every family dinner was harmonious.  I was a notorious milk spiller as a child and this trait was inherited by one of my children.  There is one family dinner that goes down in Harney (my maiden name) family dinner history.  The Spaghetti Dinner. 


When I was growing up my family ate dinner at precisely 5:30 pm.  No exceptions and no excuses.  One night, to stretch a dollar, my hard-working homemaker mother made meatless spaghetti for our dinner entree.  Nowadays Spaghetti Mariana is a popular dish.  Not for my Irish father.  He was a meat and potatoes man.  A meatless meal was an insult to his manhood. 


That night when my father sat down to dinner and realized that the spaghetti sauce did not contain meat, he pushed his plate across the table and said to my mother, "What is this sh**?"   My mother was not a feminist, but she was no shrinking violet either, particularly when it came to insults to a meal she had spent the time making with three little kids under foot. 


In response, my mother picked up the shoved plate of meatless spaghetti and dumped it on my father's head.  There was a moment of silence and then my brother (who loved drama) began to laugh wildly while we all watched long pieces of spaghetti drip red sauce from all around my father's prematurely bald head. 


My parents later apologized to each other and to us kids.  We were all back at the dinner table the next night.  Luckily, this dinner drama was the exception, and most of my childhood family dinners were much more harmonious. 


This story is testament to the power of family dinner.  Family dinner can endure the occasional dramatic incident because consistent family dinners create family connection and resilience and, ultimately, lead to family harmony.  Family harmony is an estate planners’ best friend.  To pave the way for a harmonious and happy family both in our lifetime and beyond we need look no further than our kitchen table.  

If this essay has led you to the belief that your family is in need of an estate plan, please contact me.