My wife has a life expectancy over 100 years.

You can learn the life expectancy of your spouse--- or your own expectancy--- simply by visiting the expectancy calculator on MSN Money. There you will be asked to answer a few questions about your family background, your basic health, and your exercise and eating habits. The calculator also asks whether you smoke cigarettes or marijuana, drive fast and have accidents, or regularly get drunk. Needless to say, you will be penalized if your role model in life is, or was, Elvis Presley.

You may also be penalized if your parents or grandparents chose Elvis as their role model or died prematurely from natural or unnatural causes. That may explain why my expectancy is only 84 years. There isn't much longevity in my family unless I go back to my paternal great grandfather.

It is possible to increase your life expectancy by changing your life. In a similar test many years ago, for instance, I learned that I could increase my expectancy by more than 6 years if I did the following:

•  Became a woman,

•  Gave up journalism

•  Became a low income stevedore

•  And moved to a small town.

Fortunately, the MSN Money calculator is narrower in scope, limiting its ways to improve expectancy to things like weight and eating habits.

Having an expectancy of 100 years (or 84 years) doesn't mean you will curl up and die when you reach that age. It just means that half of all the people with similar habits and backgrounds will die before that age and half will die later. It's an indicator, not a deadline.

Why am I telling you this?

Life, in the form of rising expectancies, has thrown us a curve ball.   Most of us like the idea of leaving something behind for the children. Some of us think about the grandchildren. I know from years of reader letters that many elderly people deprive themselves. Why?   Because they are hoarding money they hope to leave to their children.

But that's the problem. The children aren't children. They won't even be young adults. They will be old people by the time the will is read.

Here's the math for the Burns family. If no money is distributed until my wife reaches her expectancy, our youngest child will be about 75. The oldest will be pushing 80. Visit the MSN calculator and do the math for your own family. Odds are you'll come up with some surprising--- and similar--- numbers. Basically, the next generation will be inheriting money long after they would be inclined to blow it on a new Ferrari. They will also be inheriting long after they have passed most of the financial hurdles in life--- and too late to truly make their lives better.

What can we do?

Give early. Give often. Put the leverage of time in their hands. Here are a few examples. None are unusual, but their leverage is immense.

•  Give Home Down Payments When They Are Ready. Accumulating a down payment is a long and difficult process. A down payment begets future price appreciation and years of future tax deductions. If the price of the house is 2 times your children's income, annual appreciation of 4 percent a year will grow their net worth by 8 percent of their income a year.

•  Prepay Grandchild Tuitions. This does double duty. It educates the grandchildren and it allows the parents more financial freedom because they won't have to save the money themselves. It may allow them to fully fund their 401k plans.

•  Contribute to a Roth IRA for Your Children. With young children at home, most people are hard pressed to maximize their tax deductible 401k plan. But funding a Roth IRA for an adult child allows your money to grow tax-free in their name. Every $1,000 given today is like providing an inheritance of $8,000 in 30 years or $16,000   in 40 years, adjusted for inflation.

•  Contribute to a Charitable Fund; Meet with Your Children to Decide Gifts. Between community foundations and the charitable funds established by most of the major mutual fund firms, it is very easy to make a gift that becomes the basis for future annual giving by your children. They receive no tax benefits because it's your money, but it may augment their charitable giving.

•  Take Everyone To the Beach.   With families increasingly spread around the country, the role of Convener is priceless.

Finally, if you can do this, be thankful. Today and tomorrow are a lot harder for most people.

Next Tuesday:   Why We Need to Be Generous  

Life Expectancy Calculator