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A good time to take stock

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There’s nothing quite like a once-in-a-century pandemic to prompt re-examination — and that’s what many diocesan Catholics have done, according to retirement and estate planning experts in the area who’ve seen a surge in activity since COVID-19. Clients increasingly are refocusing priorities and raising new questions ranging from estate planning to Catholic-based retirement savings to advanced medical directives, or living wills. 

“The experience of living through the pandemic at this time has really raised people’s awareness about how short life is and that things can change on a dime,” said Mary Lawrence, an estate planning lawyer with ShounBach in Fairfax. “COVID really awakened them to the reality that none of us know the hour or the day so that we should be ready on many levels.”

“So many people don’t do proper estate planning and we have always felt it was so important,” said Patty Coppola, chief operational officer at Coppola Estate Planning, where she has worked for 26 years. “We want them to do what’s right.”

Many in the diocese have expressed greater interest in charitable giving.

Adam Smith, financial planner at Acorn Financial Services in Reston, which maintains a large Catholic clientele, recalled one client with a strong connection to a local parochial school they and their children attended. Smith’s firm helped them evaluate the tax implications of various giving vehicles, from donor advised funds to foundations to direct scholarships.

As the pandemic laid bare how much of society is on the edge of meeting basic needs, Lawrence said many clients are motivated to give without knowing where to start. They are inundated with slick TV ads and direct mail on behalf of national and international charities, but they are often unaware of local parish and diocesan Catholic Charities projects. “I wish there was a way to make it easy for them to see all the good that the diocese does and they could feel as good about their donation” as they do responding to a television commercial, she said. 

When spouses are not dialed into the same retirement goals it’s a challenge, said Robert Abbate, who as general agent manages the Knights of Columbus Abbate Agency, which maintains eight offices across Virginia, including four in the Arlington diocese. “We make sure that the couple is on the same page.”

For his agents, which include his sons Nick and Max, the pandemic has sparked an increase in Catholics exploring long-term care insurance, which the Knights offer along with life insurance, retirement annuities, disability insurance and, in some cases, investment advice they say are all based on Catholic teachings. Membership in the Knights is not a prerequisite.

Clients increasingly have approached them for help establishing a “legacy plan,” a mix of charitable giving, gifts to children and accommodating various special needs, while minimizing taxes, Nick said. “Ben Franklin said that death and taxes are the only two guaranteed things — we help out with both.”

Catholics now pay greater attention to aligning retirement savings with their values, experts said, part of a broader trend sometimes referred to as socially responsible investing. 

“Whether they like it or not, their money speaks for them,” said Nick Abbate. “We’re trying to help marry Catholic values with their financial portfolio.”

“Now it’s a big thing and we’ve noticed that with our Catholic clients,” said John Ryan, a financial planner with Acorn, who attended Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. Smith said that because broadly offered investment funds are “largely, but not perfectly, compatible with Catholic teachings,” he has steered clients to Catholic-specific options such as the Ave Maria Fund and Catholic Values versions of common stock indices such as the S&P 500.  Other funds adopt a "do no harm" approach that simply avoids stocks that run contrary to Catholic values. 

Additionally, Smith described a “sea change” in how clients of all ages are reassessing life priorities. 

“One of the questions that comes up is, ‘Can I slow down more?’ ” said Ryan, who noted that a direct consequence of the pandemic is more willingness to trade the new car or extra vacation for a less demanding line of work with more time at home. “People are more focused on the quality of life than the quantity of things.”

Expert advisers can also help ensure their clients receive the sacraments in accordance with their wishes. In families where adult children are not practicing Catholics, Lawrence makes sure clients specifically request in their will a rite of Christian burial. Coppola stressed the importance that an advanced medical directive accounts for uniquely Catholic priorities, such as the anointing of the sick. 

While the big picture gets most of the attention in estate planning, Coppola said that considering individual mementos can avoid the problem she has seen of “who gets what when three people want the same item.” Better still is to develop a habit of giving early and often. She recalled one client who gifted diamonds to her niece, who had them set into earrings and a bracelet that brought joy to both women. “It just changes the energy of things.”

The challenges of advanced age are universal, yet there is a Catholic value in confronting them head on and without procrastination, experts advised.

“Loving your family is allowing them to help you when you need it. Let there be a plan in place to relinquish that control and let your children help you,” without letting pride or stubbornness stand in the way, Lawrence said. “That is a gift to your family.”

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021