A recent article in MSN money identifies a common problem with estate plans. Since 1995 the practice of treating different children differently in an estate plan has become more and more popular. Further, the evidence is clear that this practice has put a lot of stress on a lot of surviving familial relationships. As a matter of fact, I have seen instances where family members have sworn to never speak to each other as a result of a dispute regarding an estate. It isn’t hard to understand that a lot of feelings, and a lifetime of family dynamics can be tied up in these final wishes. While the rest of the world looks at these as financial transactions, they can be very personal evidence to a perceived prejudice for or against another beneficiary. Is Mom’s estate plan the final proof that she loved little Timmy more than she loved you? Maybe, but probably not. My experience has been that it is far more likely that Mom knows her kids better than anyone else on the planet knows her kids, so she knows that little Timmy is going to need more financial help than you are.
Really, that’s the rub. There are usually logical explanations for these decisions that demonstrate that the individual had the love and foresight to create an estate plan in the first place, really loved everybody he or she left behind. The problem is that we, as people, tend to be pretty fragile creatures especially in the moment of stress of the passing of someone very dear to us. Take just a second to think about it, have you ever been in a situation where your actions were attributed to some perceived evil intent, when really that interpretation was merely a result of the stress being felt by the perceiving party? Of course you have, we all have. The difference is that in your situation you had the opportunity to tell that person, “I’m not yelling at you to get across the street because I hate you, I’m yelling at you because there is a car coming.” The problem is that the person whose estate plan is being interpreted here, is no longer with us to explain why they did what they did how they did it. Let’s take the Little Timmy example from above, do you think anybody would have been upset if mom would have taken her other kids aside and said, “you guys are all doctors, and I know you aren’t going to have financial problems. Timmy is 35 and he works part time at the burger stand, he is going to need this money more than you do. I love you all and I am proud of you all and I am so glad that you aren’t going to have to depend on my passing for you to have a chance at a good financial life.”? Of course not. Unless you live in a soap opera and your long lost evil twin just returned from a desert island after everyone believed he was eaten by a shark, everybody is going to say, “I love you mom”, there is going to be a big hug and some leaky eyes and life goes on as normal.
The MSN article identifies the problem as a problem with the estate plans. The truth is, as most family problems, it is actually one of communication. It’s not that little Timmy gets more or less than his brothers or sisters, it’s that nobody communicated to explain what was going to happen, why it was going to happen, or how it was going to happen. I love helping people take care of their families. I live to help my clients ensure they leave a legacy, that they can positively impact the lives of their children and their children’s children. The best way to make sure that those children are still talking to each other after they are gone is to be open and honest BEFORE your departure. Tell them what to expect and they won’t be surprised, won’t be hurt, and won’t get so angry that they never speak again.