Over the years, both Keith and I have stressed to our clients the importance of communicating your estate plan to your family. Holding a family meeting is a good way to do this. We feel so strongly that a family meeting plays a key role in ensuring an effective estate plan, that we have incorporated it into our Peace of Mind By Design process that we have in place for revocable living trust-based planning. Of course, a family meeting’s role is not limited to just trust-based planning. It can play a key role in any plan you have in place. The goal is to communicate, communicate, communicate, so that your plan is explained and misunderstandings and confusion are prevented.
A good example of what can happen when an estate plan is not clearly communicated to the heirs is what happened with one of Keith’s matters. In this family, Dad was an elderly retired farmer with four daughters. The youngest had had a number of financial scrapes, and Dad had bailed her out. So, when he sat down with Keith to do his estate planning, he directed that her share be reduced to even things up between the daughters.
Dad died several years later, and Keith met with the family to go over the planning. All four daughters listened carefully, because their dad had never told them anything about his planning. When Keith finished, the youngest daughter was visibly upset.
During the probate of their dad’s estate, our office worked with all four girls. The youngest daughter’s feelings didn’t change. She had concluded that her dad didn’t love her as much as her sisters. What was most surprising, and upsetting, was that the youngest wouldn’t speak to her sisters. Keith did legal work for one of the other daughters years later and learned that the sisters still hadn’t reconciled.
Having said that, discussing your estate plan with your family can sometimes be difficult. Parents can be reluctant to share their plans with adult children. Some parents may be afraid of creating family rifts, for example, if one child is selected to be trustee, personal representative or agent under a power of attorney over the others, or if inheritances are not equal, such as with Keith’s clients above. However, explaining your decisions now to your family, at least in general terms, will typically avoid surprises later and make it more likely that your family will accept them.
Here are some tips for a successful family meeting:
- Choose a date and time that is convenient for everyone and select an appropriate location (such as our office if we are hosting the meeting as part of our trust-based services). While in-person attendance is most desirable, don’t let the inability of a family member to be there in person derail the process. Telephone and/or video conferencing are fine alternatives.
- Have an agenda in place. Open discussion is important, but an agenda will help keep the meeting on track. The agenda should cover your general objectives, purposes, plans and expected outcomes. No detailed financial information or values of assets need be disclosed at this time, unless you feel it appropriate to do so.
- Expect some anxiety at the beginning of the meeting if there are sensitive issues to cover. There may be additional challenges if you have a blended family. Or there may be a child that you do not feel is ready to handle an inheritance. Putting these issues out in the open often leads to greater understanding and acceptance.
And, of course, we are there to help you explain how your plan works and why key decisions were made.
So why do it? It’s just good planning in our experience.
(Originally posted on October 17, 2014 – but just as important today!)