Privacy surrounding financial matters and the discomfort of confronting the prospect of illness or death can discourage family members from having important conversations. But the approaching holidays and family gatherings create the opportunity to talk about one’s estate plan. While having a comprehensive estate plan that helps avoid probate and ensures that one’s desired distributions are enacted is crucial, communicating one’s goals and motives to loved ones and fiduciaries is equally important.
The fiduciaries, such as trustees and agents under the powers of attorney, should know and understand the principal’s wishes and motives as it will help them make health and financial decisions confidently and in accordance with the principal’s desires. The fiduciaries should also be aware of the existing healthcare directives and the principal’s wishes regarding long term care and life sustaining treatment.
Further, it is also very important that the fiduciaries understand the extent of the estate, including any insurance policies and retirement plans, they will be responsible for managing for the beneficiaries. The need to seek clarification, sometimes involving even the need for court assistance, will only unnecessarily delay essential decisions as well as the administration of the estate and the distribution of assets.
Finally, it is imperative to ensure that the chosen fiduciaries are not only capable of serving the designated function but are also willing to take on such a task. If one’s desired fiduciaries do not agree to serve in that capacity, the prospect of hiring a professional trustee can be explored.
Despite the importance of the conversation regarding one’s estate plan, it can be difficult to start. Every family dynamic is different, but certain elements can help, such as picking a private environment during an uneventful time, being sincere, and emphasizing the value and benefits of having the conversation in the first place. Sometimes, subjects come up naturally. Sometimes, referencing a movie, book, or article, or even referring to a meeting with a financial advisor, can be a good conversation starter.
The conversation about estate planning, while necessarily intertwined with the topic of death, does not have to center around it. The focus of the discussion should be on one’s legacy, protection for the family, and life and health choices.
It is very important to clearly express one’s motives, desires and concerns. Further, various eventualities and outcomes should also be discussed. Understanding the “why” and “what if” will help the fiduciaries and family members make informed and accurate decisions during the principal’s incapacity and after his or her death. While conversing, it is equally important to listen and recognize that others involved may have their own feelings and opinions on the subject.
Having a conversation about one’s estate plan as well as health and financial directives will not only ensure that the principal’s wishes are correctly and easily executed, thus protecting the family legacy, but it may bring the entire family a sense of preparation, peace, and understanding.
Of course, not all difficult topics should be or must be discussed at once; but family members should talk about health wishes, inheritance, and possible issues before the crisis arises. Communicating and planning in advance can minimize misinterpretation, confusion, mistakes, and conflicts.
Natalia Vander Laan is a Minden attorney.
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