Talking to your family about what you want to happen at your death may make you feel squeamish for many reasons. In fact, it’s a taboo subject for many people, including for the following reasons:
- Contemplating one’s own mortality can be difficult and upsetting.
- Some families simply practice or rather, avoid, talking about financial issues that affect the family. For them, it is a matter of privacy and/or they feel that it is none of anyone’s business what they do with their affairs on death.
- Some people think that not speaking about it is a way to prevent family feuds (or additional family feuding)—they are in fact saying (and have actually said this to me) that “they can fight about it when I’m gone.” In this case, people know that there is a likelihood that certain family members who have historical acrimony or who have dollar signs in their eyes will fight over their estate.
- There are also individuals who assume that everything and everyone affected will fall into place at the relevant time i.e. at their death, in what they hope is the distant future. Thus, they conclude that there is no need to stress everyone out right now by talking about it. It will all work itself out in the future.
These are just a few of the notions people carry and which lead them to avoid discussing their estates during the planning stages. However, a family discussion on these and other related issues can go a long way to preventing hurt feelings, estate litigation and family breakup.
Essentially, a discussion can achieve buy-in and acceptance of your decisions because your family will not only hear your plan but can also hear your reasons for setting things up the way you have. For example, an adult child may feel grave hurt and disappointment over the fact that you have chosen to give a larger portion of your estate to another child. This hurt may be compounded by the fact that a will is often the last thing people will say to their loved ones. Unfortunately, disappointed beneficiaries all too often express their hurt and anger using the court system which, amongst other things, destroys family relationships and erodes estate assets.
On the other hand, if you choose to discuss your plans before your death, your family will have an opportunity to tell you their feelings about your plan. By having a family discussion about this aspect of your estate plan, you will have the opportunity to explain that the child you gave more to, in actual fact is struggling financially or perhaps has special needs such as an illness or other challenge, and that you want to help alleviate some of the strain they’re under. You may be surprised to find that the child who will receive less actually agrees with your decision, now that you’ve explained that you simply want to alleviate financial strain rather than that you love that child more than the one you gave less to. That child may now cooperate with the estate administration once you’re gone in full agreement with your written wishes and intentions. Again, the discussion may help to avoid hurt feelings and litigation.
Other reasons for unequal distribution or even creation of trusts which many would agree are valid but may cause controversy if no explanation is given include protecting beneficiaries who:
- would likely squander the inheritance
- suffer from substance abuse habits
- would be unduly influenced by another person such as a domineering or manipulative spouse
Some clients have even told me that they would like to benefit the next generation and give to their grandchildren to give them a start in life rather than their adult children who have already established themselves financially.
Thus, the reasons why people plan their estates as they do are as diverse and numerous as the plans themselves. Different family dynamics, asset types and title to assets, beneficiary needs, values, belief systems, goals and objectives all mean that different planning will take place and a variety of estate plans will be established.
Please note that I’m not saying that one needs others’ permission in order to plan one’s estate as one desires or that one doesn’t have freedom to do as one wishes within the confines of the relevant law. In reality, you do have that freedom. However, it is wise to take all necessary steps to avoid severe or bitter disappointment which can lead to litigation and all of the ugly realities that go along with it. Consider how much will really be achieved if your family is torn apart and your estates assets are wasted in a bitter court battle due? How would you feel if it is caused by misunderstanding and ignorance about your plan?
If you would like to discuss how to speak to your family about your estate plan and what that could involve, please contact Andrea Kelly.
Andrea Kelly, Lawyer, has extensive experience in wills, trusts, powers of attorney and estate administration matters. She provides clients with a high standard of timely professionalism and expertise, incorporating a very thorough fact finding process. This is quite often enlightening for her clients and facilitates individually tailored services. If you would like to know more, feel free to use the easy contact form or read Andrea’s bio.