Estate Planning A Focus on Family Harmony: Will Your Children Still Be Friends When You’re Gone?

 In Legal & Financial
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As experienced estate planning attorneys, we’ve seen countless family feuds erupt after the death of a parent. Many of those clients were convinced that this could never happen in their families. While clients expect us to advise them on the legal implications of their choices, we also counsel them on how to maximize the positive impact of their legacy and minimize the chance that resentment and conflict will cause a lasting family rift after they’re gone. Based on a recent study, we’ve learned that the top motivation for estate planning is to avoid chaos and conflict among heirs. Estate planning is more than the investment, management and disposition of assets upon disability or death. It includes the preservation of family values and traditions, not the least of which is family harmony.

What Are Some Of The Causes Of Family Conflict?

Unexpected Greed: About $30 trillion in wealth will be transferred from one generation to the next over the next three decades. With this amount of money at stake, the inherent desire to “get their fair share” may spawn uncharacteristic selfishness in some children, resulting in fierce conflict with potentially devastating consequences. Depending upon family dynamics and history, equal distributions do not necessarily avoid the conflict, especially when family farms and businesses are involved or lifetime gifts and loans have made to some of the needy children. As we often explain to clients, “fair is not always equal and equal is not always fair.”

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Fiduciary Selection: The choice of “who does what” may impact family harmony more than “who gets what.” There are plenty of unexpressed expectations in almost every family that can come to a head when family members realize who has the power to settle the trust or manage a parent’s affairs during disability. Some people see the role as an honor; others as an unenviable chore. Some family members will assume that roles should be assigned based on age or birth order, rather than suitability. One of the most important reasons for seeking our professional assistance in designing your estate plan involves the choice of successor trustees, agents, and executors/personal representatives (“successor agents”), and the potential effects of those choices on family relationships. Naming your surviving spouse as your successor agent seems only natural; however, in some families, such as blended families, or in marriages where one spouse has had little involvement in family finances, naming them could ignite or exacerbate rifts in the family or cause overwhelming stress to the ill-equipped spouse who may be struggling already with inconsolable grief and loss. Naming the children in order of birth, without carefully evaluating their experience and temperament, sibling dynamics, and leadership styles, can also produce enormous conflict within the family. You should consider some of these important questions before selecting any family member to be your successor agent:  How do they handle their own finances now? Are they good at follow through and attention to detail? Do the other children look up to them as a leader in the family? Are they tolerant of the life choices made by others in the family? What is their leadership style? Do they solicit input or issue autocratic mandates? Have any of the other children expressed frustration or concern about their ability to communicate with or relate to the other members of the family?

The Forgotten Plans:  Oftentimes, parents forget to plan for an item, or forget they told a child they could have it, or forget they already gave an item to a child. These situations may seem trivial, especially when the item has little monetary value, but we’ve seen intense, expensive family battles fought over “stuff” most of us would consider trivial or inconsequential.

The In-Law Factor: Careful consideration should be given to the potential influence of sons/daughters in-law. Because the stakes can be high, they often find it difficult to resist involvement, and their influence can both ignite and fuel family conflict. Holding family meetings with your children to keep the lines of communication open, to educate them about the financial and legal aspects of your plan, to share your expectations, and to express your hopes for family harmony when you’re gone, may mitigate the potential impact in-laws can have on family conflict.

Other Sources: These include family business or farm succession, and the importance of passing on control as well as ownership, especially when some children have been more active in the operations and added greater value than other children. Sources of conflict can also include ambiguities in the documents or the failure to provide basic information to the successor agent, such as insurance and account information, business interests, passcodes, safe locations and contents, keys, etc.

Estate Planning Solutions

One of the most effective means of avoiding family conflict is to put everyone on the same team by selecting an independent fiduciary to serve as your successor agent. This avoids pitting family members against each other, and relieves them of the enormous burden placed on the successor agent. You’ve wisely hired a professional to document your plan; it makes sense to hire a professional to make sure your wishes get carried out.  For a more detailed discussion on fiduciary selection, please revisit the article we published in the Wise Guide entitled “Choosing a Successor Trustee/Disability Agent (Spring/Summer 2017, thewiseguideonline.com/2017/06/7471).

Additionally, consider holding family meetings to discuss how your plan implements measures to preserve family harmony. This prepares your children in advance for the orderly administration of your estate, educates them on the process, and thereby reduces anxiety, confusion and even paranoia that might fuel the fire of family conflict.

Lastly, when we help you design your estate plan, we’ll discuss the potential benefits of no-contest clauses to preempt disputes, the consequences of complete disinheritance, and the role trust protectors can play to resolve disputes, efficiently oversee the actions of the successor agents and make necessary revisions to the plan to adapt to changing circumstances, law and practices.

Estate Planning Call to Action

In many families, Mom and Dad are the glue keeping the family together in this busy, fast-paced, digitally dominated age we live in. Preserving family harmony and unity after we’re gone may be one of the most important legacies we can leave our children and grandchildren. If we don’t have an estate plan in place, it’s time to get that going.  If we have an existing will or trust, let’s dust it off and evaluate our plan with a view towards reducing family conflict.

At the Crandall Law Group, we offer complimentary consultations to review your existing estate plan, or if you don’t currently have a plan in place, to assist you in developing a plan that addresses family unity as well as all of the other important considerations necessary and relevant to you and your family.

by: Jeffery Crandall, J.D., AEP, Certified Estate Planning Law Specialist
Crandall Law Group

Jeff Crandall is a business and estate planning attorney with over 29 years of experience in business, tax, estate planning, elder law and business succession planning. He is licensed in Idaho, Washington and California and has been practicing in the Coeur d’Alene area for over 20 years. Jeff loves helping people solve problems and, whenever possible, helping them to avoid problems in the first place.

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