Do I talk about my estate planning with my family?
This is a question a lot of people struggle with for various reasons. Some feel it is too morbid. Some haven’t even figured out what they would want to happen in the event of their deaths. Others worry their loved ones will look at them as an ATM machine.
With regards to the first two, ignoring death isn’t going to prevent it, but it will likely make it a lot harder on your family who are stuck dealing with a legal mess instead of taking time to grieve.
With regards to the third, this is a concern I ponder often myself. Wills and estates weren’t words that came up in my family growing up (not that we had anything). My family’s first reaction to a death wasn’t how to divide up the jewelry or who got what. I still believe that isn’t what it should be about. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t talk about estate planning with their family, they just have to do it in a productive way. In my experience, using an inheritance as a carrot or a stick is a sure fire way to train your family to view you as a cash payout waiting to happen.
What kind of care and support can you expect from family members who think of you that way? The last thing you want is them pinching every one of YOUR pennies in providing you care in your later years to maximize their inheritance.
So how and why can you bring this up in a productive way? The why is pretty simple. When people know your wishes, they are more likely to honor them and fight less amongst each other. If they are left to guess your wishes, their guesses tend to be very self-serving. This is just as important for your medical wishes as how your estate is distributed. If you have strong feelings on certain procedures or life support, your family should know so they can support your decisions. Likewise, if you make any decisions that are going to cause hurt feelings or strong disagreement, it can be helpful to firmly establish what you want and why it doesn’t reflect a lack of concern or love for the offended family member. I often have clients write letters to provide explanations for some of these difficult decisions.
And how? Many will have a family meeting. This can be a great option for some families, but you have to think about what works best for your family. While it may be harder to dispute your wishes when they were explained with an audience, people tend to remember what they want to remember. As I mentioned, letters can also be a great way to express your wishes, though you have to decide if you want to give people the chance to talk to you about your decisions during your lifetime, versus springing it on them after you have passed. You may have to take different approaches for different people.
Most importantly, it is absolutely essential to prepare valid estate planning documents to enforce your wishes. A judge can’t make a ruling based on a family meeting. If there is no valid Will, the law decides. If there is no Directive to Physicians, certain family may have to agree on whether or not to pull the plug (otherwise end up in court). I generally recommend a valid Will and/or Living Trust, Durable Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney, Directive to Physicians, Declaration of Guardian (for self and minor/disabled children), Appointment of Agent for Disposition of Remains, and often other documents to protect personal and financial well-being during life and family relationships after death.
These aren’t issues that belong to the wealthy alone. I deal with guardianships where the person doesn’t have a penny to their name and estates worth anywhere from $2,000 to millions.
Hey, it may not be fun to think about, but once your documents are in order, you will have the freedom to spend your time on more pleasant thoughts.