Most people never disclose the details of their estate plan to their children, who may also be their successor trustees, executors, and agents. As a result, after they die, the children are left to guess about their deceased family member’s true intentions because of the sterile, legal language used in their parent’s will or living trust.
It’s also true that many children are not even sure that their deceased parent wrote a will, much less know where it is located, and in fact, there are countless stories of children who were unable to find Mom or Dad’s will. Furthermore, even if a parent’s will, or trust document, can be located, there is a good chance that some of its provisions will be out-of-date and that it was based on the status of the family at the time it was written but not necessarily as it is today.
Too often, therefore, after a parent dies, there is a lot misunderstanding and conflict among the deceased’s surviving children because they are left to try to decipher the final wishes of their parent based on long-ago conversations, cryptic notes, family traditions, false assumptions and their own perceptions about what is fair. This can be a recipe for disaster.
To avoid leaving such a legacy to your children, it’s a good idea to have a family meeting, which could be held at your home or at your lawyer’s office. You may want to ask your key advisers to attend the meeting too. The tone of the meeting should be somewhat formal but friendly as well. After all, you aren’t dead yet!
Here are some of the topics I recommend discussing at your family meeting:
- The legal documents in your estate plan (Trust, Will, Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive, etc.) and the purpose of each.
- Where these documents are stored and how your family can access them quickly after your death or disability.
- The responsibilities of the executors, successor trustees, personal representatives, and agents charged with administering your estate and the steps that must be taken to complete the administration process. During this discussion, be sure to assure your family members that they have the right to know what is going on during each stage of this process and explain to those who will serve as your agents that they have a responsibility to keep everyone informed throughout the process.
- The purpose and responsibilities of your professional advisers.
- If desired, why you made the decisions you did in your estate plan. For instance, why you designated one child as your agent instead of another and why you named your agents in a certain order or instructed them to work as a team.
- How your assets, such as a 401K, will be distributed and protected for future generations.
- Why certain “difficult” assets may need to be handled in a special way, like your home, family business or one-of-a-kind family heirlooms.
- Why you’ve put one child’s inheritance in a trust rather than leaving it to him or her outright in your will, and why your decision to do so is wise and loving rather than arbitrary.
By the way, most parents do not address the size or composition of their estate during a family meeting because they typically like to keep that information confidential, even when they are talking with their children.
You can also use your family meeting to:
- Build and strengthen ties within your family and build relationships between your key advisers and your children.
- Convey your family values to younger generations.
- Answer questions so that everyone feels comfortable with your estate plan and how you arrived at your decisions.
Some parents worry that talking with their children about their estate plan will create conflicts and hurt feelings. But that’s exactly what may happen if you leave behind a plan that your children know nothing about, and as a result it’s possible that one of more of them may try to undermine the plan after your death.
Educating them now can help your children understand the rationale behind your estate planning decisions and that they are purposeful, carefully considered and based on good counsel. Also, if any conflicts or misunderstandings related to your plan do arise, you will have an opportunity to try to resolve them. And finally, you’ll be able to change your plan if you want based on your children’s comments and reactions to it.