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Consider Talking to Your Loved Ones About Your Estate Plans

Consider talking to your loved ones about your estate plans.  Death can be one of the most challenging subjects to discuss. In my role as an estate planning attorney it is a topic of daily conversation. But talking about mortality with your children can be much more emotionally fraught than discussing it with your lawyer. That said, you can often add extra layers of value to your estate plan by opening a dialogue with the people who will be putting it into effect when you are gone.

Sharing the Minimum

Some of my clients want to keep their estate plans private from their beneficiaries and executors or successor trustees. This is sometimes because they do not want to share closely kept financial information and other details. In other cases, it is because they think it’s likely that they will change the beneficiaries or others involved. Further, some clients do not want their families to live in expectation of an inheritance and rest on their laurels until they receive it. These are legitimate reasons and it is perfectly legal and valid for your estate plan to remain within the four walls of your attorney’s office from the time that you sign it until the time that you pass away.

If you take this route, you should be certain to provide your attorney with a list of contact information for everyone involved and any supplemental information that they may need to know to carry out your wishes. Furthermore, there needs to be a plan for your family or other loved ones to contact the attorney and let him/her know when you have passed away.

There are myriad cases where someone dies and the family does not know where to look or whom to ask about a will. At the very least, if you’re not passing out copies of your estate planning documents or financial information, you should provide your future executor or other fiduciary with the attorney’s business card and contact information with the instruction that they get in touch at the right time. Also, it’s always a good idea to ask someone’s permission before you name them as your Executor or successor trustee. While this is not a legal requirement, it’s wise to ensure that they are prepared when the time comes and that they actually want to serve in the role.

The Middle Ground

A middle approach to take is to show your loved ones copies of your estate planning documents. This way, they know the basic details, such as who will be involved in the distribution of the plan. You can answer as many or as few questions as you would like about this, and you need not disclose any of your financials.

A Transparent Approach

In some cases, families, especially close-knit parents and children, want to provide a free flow of information about the estate plan. While this is in no way required, it can add value.

Some of my clients actually want to introduce their children or other family members to me, as I serve as their estate planning attorney. This is helpful because it puts a relationship into place. In the event of the death or disability of the client, these children feel very comfortable contacting me and taking the next steps.

Talking to your loved ones also allows for you to go “between the lines” of your will or trust and address some personal items that may not be explicitly spelled out. While there are certainly mechanisms for distributing personal effects and household items in estate plans, it’s not something everyone chooses to do. If you have a family where everyone gets along, you can express your wishes by gathering the family together and having a conversation about how you wish for them to be distributed. As you get older, you may want to gift out some of these personal effects to your loved ones. This takes them out of your estate and allows for you to share the enjoyment of them with your family while you are still alive.

Another reason why it can be beneficial to have these conversations with your family is generational wealth building. If you are leaving a nice nest egg, there is a great benefit in explaining to your children how you earned and saved your money, and what they can do to protect and grow it. For example, you may want to discuss the value of making significant contributions to their 401(k) or other retirement plan, and explain the advantages to them of rolling your retirement accounts into inherited IRA’s rather than cashing them out when you’re gone.

If you need help, you could always ask your attorney or accountant to be involved in these conversations. The families that build generational wealth over time (even starting small) are often those who educate their heirs in handling the money. If you teach your heirs about fiscal responsibility, they won’t treat their inheritance as a windfall to spend, but rather as an opportunity to grow and add value to their own families. These lessons can be just as valuable as the bequests in your estate plan.


Michael Wagner is senior counsel concentrating on elder law and estate planning.  He can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.
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