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Wealthy and Wise: How To Have a Family Meeting About Your Estate Plan

Many good people labor a lifetime to build up assets and advance causes that matter to them, then fail to effectively hand off their money or money-management vision to those following behind them. Those pitfalls can be avoided in some measure through honest communication with your family now. One of the best ways to start the process is by having a family meeting to discuss your estate plan with your children and loved ones.

Everyone knows family meetings can be uncomfortable, as can conversations about money — especially inheritance money. But when details of an estate plan are sprung on people at the time of someone’s death, and the rationale behind the person’s decisions has not been made clear, it sets the stage for confusion and conflict, especially during a time of grief. The estate you stewarded so carefully can be frittered away in costly, time-consuming conflicts and lawsuits among your heirs, while beloved family members are torn apart over antiques, heirlooms or who gets the house. This happens far more often than anyone cares to admit. Too many fortunes built by one generation are lost by the next, not due to bad luck or the IRS, but due to a lack of understanding of wealth management and preservation or through conflict.

Communication now can prevent conflict later. Family meetings can go a long way toward making your intentions clear regarding your estate and even advance your values and wealth management vision. So, what should you discuss at your family meeting?

First, frame your estate planning around your guiding principles. Communicate your intentions thoroughly in the trust, and explain your vision clearly to your trustees and beneficiaries while you are still around. By attaching your values to your estate planning and involving your family in the process, your estate plan becomes a family plan, lessening the opportunities for conflict.

Once you’ve committed to discussing your estate planning with your family, you should decide what level of detail to go into. This will depend on your family, your circumstances, and your overall level of comfort with the amount of specific information you want them to have. You don’t necessarily have to divulge everything; for example, there’s typically no need to reveal precise dollar amounts at a family meeting. I’ll add one big caveat to this: if there’s anything in your plan that might generate controversy, concealing it now serves to invite conflict later. Thus, a basic rule of thumb is to share as much as is necessary to get everyone on the same page.

When you hold a family meeting, a bit of awkwardness is to be expected at first — after all, no one in your family is likely eager (one hopes) to discuss what will happen when you die. Likewise, you need to be prepared to talk through some of the choices you’ve made that may bring pushback.

If you’re gathering during a holiday, try to arrange the actual meeting to take place after the holiday itself so a potentially uncomfortable conversation doesn’t spoil planned festivities.

Set an agenda. Encourage open conversation, especially on any controversial points, but have a clear list of points to be covered so you don’t forget anything amid emotional moments. Having an estate planning attorney there to offer explanations and guidance is a good idea when needed. Sometimes, encouraging your family members to get their own estate planning done helps them gain an understanding of how the process works and what to expect.

Set a start and stop time. This will help the meeting stay on track and not meander away from the main points. If done well, the end of the meeting should be more comfortable and less awkward than the beginning. A sense of common purpose and understanding should prevail. By communicating your reasons, desires and motivations, you do what you can to create peace among your heirs after you are gone — and that may become one of your greatest legacies.

Stephen Wood is the founder of Wood Law, Wills & Trusts A.P.C. in Newbury Park. He is a State Bar of California Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have read your article in the Conejo Guardian regarding the capital gains tax, I found it very helpful.
    Thank you very much

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