My father, with his well-earned wisdom, would often talk to me about his estate planning. “My son,” he would say, “I don’t plan to have any estate.” That was his basic philosophy when it came to life. He and my mom would help us out while they were alive, but he intended to enjoy the money he made.
His motto in it all? “If we have anything left over, we’ve made a mistake.”
While I admired that, it isn’t that simple for everyone. Estate planning and will creation can be emotionally stressful and fraught, in addition to being logistically difficult. With all the paperwork comes the question of how you want to leave your legacy, for whom you want to provide, and what money will do to your family.
We all know that money is maybe the most difficult subject, and the fights or unresolved tensions about inheritance can tear a family apart for years. It is clear you don’t want that to be your legacy, which is why it is vitally important to talk to your children about your estate planning and will.
Being honest throughout the process might not always be easy, but openness is the best way to deal with issues before they arise, which is often too late for you to handle them. It’s vital to manage your children’s expectations and explain your thoughts. Doing so can make a complex and emotionally-fraught situation much more manageable.
Understanding Your Own Thoughts on Estate Planning
There are a lot of logistical steps you have to take to make sure your estate planning goes as, well, planned. These include:
- Granting power of attorney
- Designating a durable POA
- Finding a qualified estate planner
- Having a full picture of your finances
But those are the bureaucratic issues, in some ways little different than a change of address form or anything else. They might be a little stranger, but in the end, it is just paperwork.
The emotional issues, of course, are far more important and far more difficult. Because you aren’t just changing addresses: you’re altering the course of people’s lives in ways small or great. That’s why it is important for you to consider a few things when thinking about estate planning and your will. You have to understand your own thoughts.
Here are some important issues to consider. (Note: we’re going to simplify things and use “money” throughout, but that can be understood as real estate, investments, other assets, etc.)
- Do I want to leave my money to family, to other things that are important to me, or both?
- Do I want to leave an endowment so that my name lives on in something I believe in?
- How much is too much to give someone?
- How much is too little?
- What are my internal family dynamics that can be exacerbated or smoothed over by handling this correctly?
- What matters most to me?
Ultimately, Question 6 encapsulates all the other questions, because while we are literally talking about value, we are really talking about values. We’re talking about what you want to survive beyond you, your memory and the wisdom you’ve imparted.
Do you want to leave money to a college fund for your grandkids? Do you want to fund the animal shelter that gave you so much joy? Do you want to create a new charity, or endow your alma mater, or send it to the world’s poorest?
Do you have a family where people have different income levels and could use help to differing degrees? Is that understood, or would it cause resentment? Would the more successful feel they are being punished for getting less, or would the less-successful feel slighted for receiving an equal share?
Are there second marriages that might be a source of tension? Are there people who, in the end, you just don’t want to support?
There are no easy answers. But these are the questions you have to be thinking about before you talk to your kids. Because if any of these issues are existing, they will come up at some point. It is best if they do while you are alive.
The Importance of Communicating With Your Children About Your Will
I understand why most people would be reluctant to talk to their kids. It’s hard enough to think about or to talk about dying. You might not want to think about it, and your kids might not want to either.
But above and beyond that, talking about estate planning is hard to do. After all, if there is any potential tension, it could boil over. You don’t want there to be resentment and anger in your golden years. But at some point, you may want to discuss it in order to set expectations.
Having these conversations means being able to talk things over while you still can. It means hearing from all sides, and getting their point of view. It means knowing where they are coming from, and it means sharing your thoughts.
Of course, at the end of the day, having the conversation is your choice. There are arguments against it: setting people up for an inheritance might cause them to count on it even though the market could crash or something else untoward could happen. You might be pressured in a way that could tarnish your final years. Or you might just feel it is no one’s business but your own; after all, it’s your estate and, ultimately, your decision.
Those are all valid, and they are important factors to take into consideration. But if you decide to have a conversation, you may be surprised at what happens with communication. You might learn something you didn’t know.
You might be scared the successful daughter will resent you leaving more to the struggling son, but she is happy to do so, as she wishes she could help him more. You might learn that your grandkids wanted to set up a foundation for the animals you loved so much, but you were worried about not leaving them enough. You never know.
That’s why these conversations are so important. You’ll learn, you’ll grow, and you’ll take advantage of the most precious asset of all: time.
You’ll have the time to change, or to explain, or to understand. You’ll have the time to remember that what keeps you together is far more valuable than what can tear you apart. You’ll have the time to remind everyone that your legacy is one of love and that if that is all you have to give, that is more than enough.
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