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Language Arts

By: Attorney Katherine S. Breckenridge, Esq.

Published April 23, 2015

Estate Planning

“. . .Who doesn’t (picture waving emoji here) lololol but really. . .get ready to deal with the sass that we all have but keep hidden until it’s time to order our venti skinny vanilla latte with an extra shot of expresso (picture smiling emoji here) jkjk I only get a tall.”

“Haha I’m prepared. . .one of my close friends is beyond basic. . .she gets like venti green tea no sugar no water. . .it’s so stupid.”

“Omg that sounds so amaze jkjk I’m all about a venti green tea with two splendas.”

What did I just read? Was there a generational gap present? Words communicated through different mediums often vary greatly in format, ranging from cryptic to formal. The cryptic as exampled in the above text message dialogue, reads like a foreign language to me.

Words, used singularly or in composition, have the potential to encompass a seemingly limitless array of possibilities, including being: representative, contractual, criminal, destructive, condemning, compromising, hateful, hurtful, revealing, empowering, healing, dispositive, redemptive, and merciful. Take all of those possibilities and add in the multitude of distributions and means of communications, and it seems that we have the makings of foreign language levels even within the English language.

Words are powerful. There is an art in the use of words. Language arts as I knew it as an elementary student, simply meant English class. Now to me, it means gravitating to, examining, and utilizing the art of language. I love words almost as much as I love books – makes sense.

Words are game changers. There was a time when I thought I was too old to make a career change, and I found myself looking at a portrait of George Washington kneeling as he said his prayer at Valley Forge, “Commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have the superintendence of them into His holy keeping.” I was so taken aback by the recognition, reverence, and expression of such a crucial entrustment by the leader of this greatest nation, that it made me long to be able to have a reason for such a petition. Shortly thereafter, I began the journey of being privileged to practice law.

At the outset of that journey I quickly realized that I was learning what until then had been a language foreign to me. During the immersion into the new language and way of thinking, came an admonition to use plain language when writing legal documents. My responsive thought was, aren’t more words better than fewer, and the more elegant the greater the expression? Doesn’t the phraseology and the length thereof, used in legal documents throughout the centuries perfectly portray what needs to be said? Words like whereas, henceforth, and therefore, seem to hold powerful places and make for eloquent transitions.

The caution given was that if in general a layperson read my authored document and needed assistance in understanding it, I should rewrite it. The implication was not to negate the necessity for legal counsel, which is a far different need, but to espouse the virtues of writing in readable format.

I smile as clients often comment about the self-proving affidavit that accompanies the signing of a will. To read such a document makes one conclude that only an attorney could have written such prose, as seemingly words are combined in a multitude of approaches, so as to state that one has completely complied with the will signing requirements set forth in the Code of Virginia. As repetitive as the phrases may appear to others, each is important and bears a subtle nuance.

Words are serious business. If not careful, even mere verbal expressions can make you a criminal, bind you contractually, create a trust, and even create a partnership.

Words spoken. Words written. We are supposed to use words with purpose. We are commanded to praise His name. “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord . . .” Psalm 150:6 (KJV)

As an estate planning attorney, the topic of conversation, is most often that of death. Death is a serious matter and often in the preparation thereof, are incredible acts of kindness expressed through words in estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, powers of attorney, and advance medical directives. There is an art in the language, in the expression, in the intent.

In both your daily actions and in your estate planning documents, I encourage you to choose your words wisely. Be careful what you publish.

Act with dignity. Edify with civility. “Frame no excuse” (The Valley of Vision). Select appropriate words. Choose wise mediums of speech and documents. Make art out of language. Affect the appropriate game changer.