Don't let potential discomfort stop you from discussing your wishes
Many people are afraid to talk about what happens when they die. Some think it’s bad luck, and others prefer to put off the discussion because it can be uncomfortable. Still others think sharing this information is personal and not something to discuss with family in the present, but rather something the family can “deal with” after they’ve passed. Some of the biggest in-fighting in the world’s most prominent families can be attributed to assumptions made regarding estate plans and trusts or simple bad communication.
A well-laid-out and well-communicated plan can help assuage any future issues and keep a family’s legacy on the right track. Here are three tips for safeguarding your estate plan to ensure that your wishes for family harmony and legacy continuation are followed.
Pay Attention to the Living Directives in Your Estate Plan
A comprehensive estate plan is designed to cover you in life and in death, explains Whittier Trust Vice President Heidi I. Bitterman, J.D. Documents such as financial and medical powers of attorney are important components of an estate plan. “These documents are only valid during your life and are designed to protect you in instances where you are still alive but unable to make financial or medical decisions,” she says, noting that there are many nuances in these documents that need to be part of the bigger picture. “People often overlook what happens when you are still alive.”
As your wealth and plan get more sophisticated, it’s important to not neglect these living directives. You’ll want your financial power of attorney to work with your beneficiaries and any trustees, for example, to ensure all your assets are properly titled and that any gifting you may be doing as part of a wealth transfer plan is not interrupted. “Medical decisions matter too,” Bitterman says, to ensure your desired level of care and/or end-of-life decisions are properly expressed and carried out if you become incapacitated.
Share Your Wishes with the People You are Nominating
The impact a surprise can have is amplified when applied to estate planning. The people who are nominated to positions of power, whether during your life or after, need to know the decisions they’re expected to make. In some cases, the gravity or complexity of the situation might not be something they’re willing to handle.
For example, someone might not feel emotionally equipped to carry out a medical directive they don’t necessarily agree with, such as a child fulfilling a do-not-resuscitate order for a parent. “Some might have difficulty living with those decisions, even if it’s something they know you want,” Bitterman says. Another example is appointing a family member to handle an estate that holds complicated or closely held family assets. “Administration of an estate is fraught with difficulty and liability for those unfamiliar with it. Not everyone will want to undertake the responsibility but might feel guilty saying no because they were nominated,” she says.
Planning documents are important, but it’s equally important to communicate them to anyone who will be involved in them and to share the reasoning behind your choices. “Your wishes are outlined in a general way in your estate planning documents, but they don’t tell the whole story. There could be nuances around why you feel you needed to structure your plan the way you created it,” she says.
For those who don’t feel comfortable having face-to-face conversations, Bitterman recommends writing out your intentions in full detail, including your reasoning and any context that may prove helpful.
The one thing not to do? Stay quiet. “Silence is usually filled with what people want to believe or what they think is best from their own perspective,” Bitterman says. “There’s a lot of litigation around personal property and estates because of what people thought was going to happen, not the reality, and what they convinced themselves their departed loved one would have wanted to happen.”
While Whittier Trust brings expertise in these delicate situations to the table, trust appointees aren’t necessarily who your loved ones want to be hearing from, especially if there’s a personal story attached. “It’s not the same as hearing it from your relative directly,” she says.
Use a Wealth Management Firm or Trust Management Company to Execute
While it’s always best for families to hear from their loved ones personally, there are advantages to using a wealth management or trust management company such as Whittier Trust. “We work with families long-term,” says Bitterman. “We know our clients very well and have a deep relationship with them.” Once your family knows who is responsible for what and why it’s best to engage the services of a professional because the execution needs to be handled delicately by a team who can see the full picture. “There are fiduciary duties, which can be hard to do if there’s an emotional component,” she says. “Additionally, the more complex your asset makeup, the more potential pitfalls there are and the more difficult the execution will likely be.”
While individuals have every right not to disclose all of their wishes while they’re alive, Bitterman stresses the importance of including those individuals or entities that are nominated to serve in your estate planning documents as soon as possible. “Good communication ensures a seamless transition to the next generation. The nominated parties need to feel ready for their responsibilities,” she says.
Bitterman cites a current example: Her team is working with a client who owns a business and wants the business to continue to thrive after his death in order to take care of his employees. “When asked about how his children were involved with the business currently, it was revealed that all but one participated in running the business, and none of them seemed to have expressed an interest in participating in it after the owner dies one day,” she says. “To the owner, the value of the business was less monetary, but more of moral importance.” Bitterman’s team recommended the family talk honestly about whether the next generation would be able to honor the wishes of the owner in keeping the company running in the future.
Bitterman hates to see a family struggle because estate plans were not communicated properly. “It can take an otherwise functional family and change the dynamics,” she says. “When it comes to estate planning, communication is key,” she says, because clarity can help pave the way to peace of mind for all concerned.