Estate planning can be one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of financial planning. One often-overlooked aspect of estate planning is talking with your heirs about your legacy plans. While most of us probably accept in theory that these conversations are important, actually carrying them out can be terribly difficult.
Here are a few suggestions that may help.
1. Communicate your values about money in a larger context with both words and behavior. Our estate plans often reflect lifelong values such as a commitment to charitable giving or a wish to provide first for our families. If children are familiar with your values, chances are they will have a good idea of what to expect from your estate.
2. Evaluate your children’s money skills. Just because kids grow up in the same family doesn’t mean they will have the same knowledge and attitudes about money. Especially if children will inherit significant amounts, conversations about estate planning can become part of larger conversations designed to help teach them how to manage and become comfortable with their legacies.
3. If your estate plan does not treat children “equally,” for whatever reasons, it’s best to share that information well in advance and to communicate it privately to each child. There are many reasons why treating children differently in an estate plan can be the fairest thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise to let them learn the specifics when a will is read. If parents and individual children can discuss these provisions and the reasons for them ahead of time, there is less likelihood of conflict between siblings after the parents are gone.
4. Don’t allow children to assume they are inheriting more than is the case. If most of your estate will go to charity, don’t keep it a secret. Not telling the kids may avoid conflict now, but it will sow seeds for deeper conflict and resentment after your death.
5. Prepare children for large or unexpected inheritances. I’ve worked with heirs who were stunned to receive legacies much larger than their parents’ lifestyles had led them to expect. If you have a substantial net worth that’s “below the radar,” perhaps in the form of land or business ownership, your children may be totally unprepared for what they will inherit. Find ways to help them learn more about both the financial and the emotional aspects of managing inherited wealth. You might also consider options, such as giving more to the children during their lifetime, to help reduce the impact of a sudden inheritance.
6. Acknowledge your own fears. Although it is seldom expressed, perhaps the strongest reason for not discussing estate plans with family members is fear. It’s natural for parents to be afraid that children will be angry or disappointed, will build too much on their expectations for an inheritance, or will be resentful of other heirs.
Talking to family members about estate planning and legacies can be difficult and even painful. Those discussions, however, will almost certainly be less painful in the long run than the stories children may make up about your decisions after you are gone.
Financial planners and financial coaches can play an important role that goes beyond providing financial advice. They may also be helpful in facilitating the family conversations. In especially difficult circumstances, the help of a financial therapist can also be invaluable.
Using the available resources to help you discuss your wishes with family members can be an important aspect of estate planning. Having those difficult conversations is one way to enhance the legacy you want to pass on to your family.
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