I was asked this question earlier this week at a presentation. As lawyers, we often like to think we have the solution and can provide it to our clients. The reality is that Life & Estate Planning is about relationships. Strong healthy relationships flourish with attention and communication. Disputes in Life & Estate Planning may look like arguments over the division of assets, but underneath, it is usually about sibling rivalry and unresolved hurt feelings from long ago. While I can include language in your plan designed to deter unhappy heirs and beneficiaries from making a fuss, it will not really solve the problem. The best way to protect your estate from disputes is communication before you are gone.
Let’s pretend that your intended heirs and beneficiaries are your three adult children. The following three-step exercise can help your family avoid ugly problems later.
Step One is to really understand why you are making certain distribution choices. This is not so you can justify choices to your heirs; it is so you can make sure you are using your assets as you wish to use them. Think about the relationship you have with each adult child and their situation in life. Which children have remained in your life? Is there a child you never hear from, a child who is always “too busy” to visit? Is there a child who checks in with you by phone if they are not in town or stops by to visit? Are you included in their family events or do you hear about everything after the fact? If you are at the point where you need some assistance, who helps you? In posing these questions, there is not necessarily one right or wrong answer, just facts to consider.
Step Two is to look at your proposed Life & Estate Plan from the perspective of each of your adult children. Try to see through their eyes. Does it look fair? If not, why? Will the out-of-town child feel like they are left out simply for living in another city? Will the caregiver feel like their efforts are under-appreciated? Use this information to guide the next step.
Step Three is to communicate. Invite your children to come over and discuss your arrangements. You don’t have to hand over your documents for review or even provide every detail. A honest discussion about your reality, the needs you have, how those needs are being met, the needs of your heirs and how you are attempting to meet those needs and distribute assets in a way that seems fair TO YOU. Having a conversation allows for change too. If the family has fallen into a habit of one child being the caregiver, the others may be unaware of help they could be providing. Making those changes can make a stronger family with more equitably shared responsibilities and lead to back to an equitable distribution that feels fair to everyone.
Three steps to help build a stronger family and avoid disputes over your Life & Estate Plan.
©Kirsten Schroeder Larsen, P.A. 2015