VOLUME 24 NUMBER 12
You’ve done the thoughtful estate planning work we urged you to do. You signed your will, your powers of attorney — maybe you even created a living trust. Now what? Do you share your estate plan with your family?
There is neither a requirement nor a prohibition — the decision about whether to share your estate plan is entirely up to you. We do have some arguments in favor of the idea, and some arguments against it. Then it is up to you.
No, you shouldn’t share your estate plan
Estate planning documents are intensely private and personal. You would not want anyone to know exactly how you plan to distribute your estate, right? That is no one’s business but your own.
Besides, if you have made decisions about how to treat your family and friends, letting them know just invites them to lobby for changes. That could be unpleasant, and lead to further discussions and arguments.
Maybe you will hurt someone’s feelings. We will have recommended that you choose one of your children to act as trustee, personal representative (or what we used to call an executor) and agent — if the other children find out they might be upset with you. Worse yet, you might have decided to use a professional fiduciary — someone outside the family — to handle your estate. That could really upset your children, or your pushy brother, or your aunt who assumes she’s the boss of the family.
On top of all that, you’ve tried time and again to get your family involved in decision-making. They won’t let you talk about your end-of-life wishes, or choose which items of personal property they would like to receive. Whenever you raise the subject, they tell you not to be foolish — that you won’t be dying any time soon, so don’t dwell on morbid topics. OK — they can have their wish.
Yes, you should share your estate plan
Your family needs to know. It’s important for them to be able to plan for themselves, and telling them about your estate plan will help.
Perhaps you got something wrong. You left the family home to your oldest daughter — maybe it will turn out that she simply doesn’t want to live there. How will you learn about that if you don’t give her an opportunity to tell you? There could be other things you should know about before your plan becomes irrevocable.
Maybe there will be some family fights. By choosing to share your estate plan now, you can get those fights out of the way, and perhaps even minimize them. You might even get your family to talk about their wishes and work out their differences. There might be fewer differences than you thought there would be.
Consider having a family meeting to discuss your estate plan. That way everyone could hear the same information, at the same time. Problems could be ironed out. There would be a chance to smooth over hurt feelings. Everyone would know what to expect.
Family members sometimes insist that a deceased parent simply couldn’t have intended to do what they did. If you tell them otherwise while you’re still alive, you might decrease the likelihood of a contest after your death.
The family meeting option
Some of our clients want to get together with all of their children to review their estate planning documents in one sitting. We can facilitate that meeting — with your permission (and only with your permission) children and others important to your plan can be brought into a combined session. We can add distant participants by phone or video conference.
What would be the point of such a meeting? It would be a chance to share your estate plan with all of the primary participants, and to clear the air. You could view it as a chance to tweak the plan if necessary. You could also assure everyone in the meeting that the plan we discussed really is what you want.
Not every estate plan should be the subject of a family meeting. If you think it’s an interesting idea, let us know and we can set it up.
The minimum you should do
There is one thing you really do need to do, though. You need to share your estate plan with the person (or people) named as personal representative, trustee, or agent on your power of attorney.
Why is this important? Because they are the people who will need to act — and possibly to act quickly — in the event of your death or serious injury. The child named as health care agent should know that he is the one who needs to come to your side immediately if you are hospitalized. If a different child is named as personal representative (executor), she should know that she will need to secure your home and contents upon your death.
One more thing: share your health care power of attorney with your primary care physician. Give a copy to any hospital or other health care facility you have used in recent years. Share this document with your health care agent, and use the occasion for a conversation about your wishes.