For most people, completing their estate plan brings a peace of mind that didn’t exist previously. One of the reasons is that keeping peace in the family often tops the list of goals that individuals have as they begin the process of completing their estate plan. Completing the plan gives them peace of mind that they have done what they could to bring peace to the family. Having a comprehensive estate plan that is clear on your wishes is an important first step. That plan should provide for who will make financial and medical decisions for you if you are alive, but unable to make decisions because of incapacity. The plan should provide for what you would want to have happen if you will be on life support with no real likelihood of recovery. The plan should provide for what you would like to have happen to your body once you are deceased, and who is in charge of making those arrangements. The plan should provide for what happens to your assets once you are deceased, and who is in charge of facilitating your wishes. Finally, the plan must be kept up to date to ensure that as your personal and family situation evolves or there are changes in the law, your plan is kept current.
Decisions you make along the way with your plan may make it more or less likely that there is discord among your heirs. The personalities of your heirs, especially those you put in charge, will also make a big difference in whether or not harmony prevails. However, in my experience there is one additional step that you can take to help increase the likelihood of family harmony and decrease the likelihood of disputes. That step is a commitment to transparency. Often we are very private about the nature and extent of our assets and liabilities. That is fine, but I strongly encourage my clients to meet with their children or other heirs to discuss the plan and then keep them up to date with any changes. These discussions may or may not include a full disclosure of assets, but it definitely includes conveying a clear understanding of what will happen (or what you are considering). This discussion can be a little scary if everyone is not being treated exactly the same. Sometimes it is a good idea to have your estate planning attorney lead the discussion to help explain the reasoning for some of the decisions. I have found, that if the children hear about the plan from the parents or with the parents present, they are much less likely to fight about it. Even if they disagree with some of the decisions. While the anticipation of the “reading of the will” after death makes for great excitement in a Hollywood movie, it is not the stuff of great planning. Your estate plan is really your family’s estate plan. They will be the ones living the plan and dealing with the decisions. It is important that you lay the groundwork well in advance of death or incapacity to decrease the likelihood of disputes.