The Family Meeting

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Published by Brad Wiewel, The Wiewel Law Firm, Austin, Georgetown, Horseshoe Bay, and San Antonio

Most people never disclose the details of their estate plan to their loved ones, successor trustees, executors, and agents. As a result, after they die, the people they leave behind are left to guess about what their deceased family member really wanted because of the sterile language used in the will or living trust.

Often, the surviving loved ones are not even sure whether a will exists, much less where it is located. In fact, there are countless stories of children who were never able to find the will of mom or dad. Even if a will or trust can be located, there is a good chance that it has out of date provisions and was based on the status of their family when it was written, but not as it exists today.

Too often, the unfortunate result of this lack of communication leads to misunderstanding and conflict with children trying to decipher the final wishes of their parents based on long past conversations, cryptic notes, family traditions, false assumptions, and their individual perceptions of fairness. This lack of communication between the generations is a recipe for disaster.

It is a very good idea, therefore, for you schedule a family meeting to educate your family (as well as any of your key advisors you think should be included) about your wishes and where your estate planning documents are located. The meeting could be held at your home or your lawyer’s office. It should be somewhat formal, but friendly – you aren’t dead yet!

Here are some of the topics I recommend discussing during your family meeting:

  • The legal documents in your estate plan (Trust, Will, Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive, etc.) and the purpose of each document.
  • Where these documents are stored and how your family can locate them quickly after your death or disability.
  • The responsibilities of the executors, successor trustees, personal representatives, and agents charged with administering your estate and the steps that must be taken to complete the administration. During this discussion, be sure to assure your family that they have the right to know what is going on during each stage of the administration process and explain to those who will serve as your agents that they have a responsibility to keep everyone informed throughout the process.
  • The purpose and responsibilities of your professional advisors.
  • If desired, why you made the decisions you did in your estate plan. For instance, why did you designate one child as your agent instead of another and why have you named your agents in a certain order or instructed them to work as a team?
  • How your assets will be distributed and protected for future generations.
  • Why certain “difficult” assets may need to be handled in a special way, like your home, family business, or “one-of-a-kind” family heirlooms.
  • Why one person’s inheritance was left in one or more trusts rather than given outright, and why your decision to do so was a wise one and not simply arbitrary.

By the way, most family meetings do not address the size or composition of an estate because the older generation typically feels that information is confidential, even to their closest loved ones.

You can also use your family meeting to:

  • Build and strengthen ties within your family and build relationships between key advisors and your children.
  • Convey your family values to younger generations.
  • Answer questions so that everyone feels comfortable with your estate plan and how you arrived at your decisions.

Some parents worry about talking with their children about their estate plan out of fear that doing so will create conflicts and hurt feelings. However, this is exactly what may very well happen if you leave behind a plan that your children know nothing about. Educating them about your plan can help them understand that your decisions were purposeful, carefully considered, and based on good counsel.

You can change your planning after the meeting based on the points raised at it. If there is no communication, your family may try to undermine aspects of the plan that they are unhappy with, maybe because they believe that you made the wrong decisions or because they don’t fully understand the implications of your decisions. A family meeting can help prevent this from happening.

©2019, The Wiewel Law Firm. All Rights Reserved.

For a comprehensive review of your personal situation, always consult with a tax or legal advisor.

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