Estate Planning Conversations

For a lot of people, death and their own fragile mortality is the last thing that they want to discuss with anyone – let alone loved ones. We know that we are not going to live forever, but pondering our inevitable demise can steal the sun right out of the day, and so we tend to focus on happier things. For the same reason, parents and children sometimes tend to avoid openly discussing Wills, Trusts and all of that legal business that will be left when someone dies.

Yesterday’s New York Times included a great article about those challenging conversations, and the benefit of having them well in advance. The centerpiece of the story is a lawyer in Seattle. He has two children and has been separated from his wife, but not divorced, for around 30 years. He also has a brain cancer, and did not have a Will. In his state, had he died without a Will, his estate would have passed to his wife. He wanted to avoid this and opened up candidly with one of his daughters, who learned of his intentions and helped him find a lawyer to put his plan down on paper.

It’s a nice story and yes, it’s good to know that you can open up to your children to discuss your estate planning. Many of our clients take the same path of least resistance. I’ve drafted countless Wills that leave a client’s estate to the surviving spouse and then equally to the children. But occasionally, depending on the facts, things get changed up. Perhaps the spouse only gets a lifetime interest in the home, and the children inherit everything else, except for the child who receives nothing. Neither the spouse nor the children have any idea about the client’s plan until the client dies and the Will surfaces. Talk about awkward.

Undoubtedly, the client had a perfect reason for putting that plan into effect. It all made sense and the principles behind the decisions were sound. But the principles and reasons were kept by the client. The client never sat down with the spouse or children to share. So the spouse sues – the prodigal child sues – everyone sues because nobody’s happy about that Will. Twelve months and tens of thousands of dollars later, the suits are settled.

I’m not willing to bet that a conversation between the client, the spouse and the kids could have avoided all of that, but it probably couldn’t hurt. So much litigation in our area stems from resentment and the fact that a spouse or child is treated differently in the client’s Will than someone else. The Times article includes the thoughts of some experts, who believe that a series of conversations about these kinds of delicate issues works best. I agree.

Sadly, if a family has some inner turmoil ahead of the client dying, you can usually expect that turmoil to break loose after the fact. I tend to believe that litigation is unavoidable in some cases. But the Times article does make an excellent point for those situations where all it takes is a few conversations with your loved ones to openly discuss your plans.