An Important Family Matter: Clinicians Could Assist in the Conversation of Family Inheritances

By Buckwalter, Wayne | Addiction Professional, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

An Important Family Matter: Clinicians Could Assist in the Conversation of Family Inheritances


Buckwalter, Wayne, Addiction Professional


According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 18.3 million persons ages 12 or older were classified with alcohol dependence or abuse in 2010. This number represents 7.3 percent of the population, a percentage that has remained relatively stable since 2002. These numbers tell us that many families are affected. When faced with this, these families are challenged when it comes to estate planning involving beneficiaries with addictions.

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Families often don't know what to do, and as a result do nothing. They are not comfortable excluding the addicted beneficiary, nor are they comfortable enabling him/her with large sums of money. Counselors can provide a valuable service by helping families move past inaction, by suggesting that proper planning will not enable addictive behavior and will protect family assets for other beneficiaries, as well as possible treatment for the addicted beneficiary. A qualified estate planning attorney is recommended as well, but one familiar and experienced with addiction issues is ideal.

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Possible scenario

The following gives an example of an approach that might be used in a counseling context with an addicted client's family. The counselor might hear, "I don't want him or her to receive anything until [the beneficiary] is in recovery." If the question is raised by a client's family, it presents Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and confidentiality issues. These can be addressed with a written client consent and/or a mediated family meeting. Providing materials and recommendations regarding this issue to clients and families constitutes a valuable service.

It is important to point out that determining whether a person with an addiction is "recovered" is virtually impossible. No former addict is ever "recovered"--recovery is a day-to-day battle. Successfully covering this issue in an estate plan requires sensitivity to, and understanding of, the disease of addiction.

The first step is to point out to the client that this is a different situation from that of creating a Trust for young beneficiaries or beneficiaries with special needs. One solution is to create a separate Trust for the benefit of the addict, tailored to the specific issues involved in his/her addiction.

Naming a family member or professional Trustee is often not the best solution. How would a Trustee determine whether the beneficiary is "recovered"? Professional Trustees are not addiction therapists and are not equipped to administer drug tests. A family member most likely has already been manipulated by the addict, and being named as a Trustee would cause more family stress.

It is often said that the hardest person for an addict to manipulate is another person in recovery. Many of the best addiction therapists are themselves in recovery. Consider naming a person in recovery as Trustee of a Trust created for the benefit of the addicted beneficiary.

The next step is to find a qualified Trustee in recovery. A starting point is a bar association Lawyer Assistance Program, which provides assistance to attorneys, members of the judiciary, law students and law graduates with alcohol, drug, gambling and other personal problems that affect well-being and professional performance. Most state bar associations offer these programs. This assistance is provided by a volunteer attorney who may be in a recovery program him/ herself and who also knows a qualified attorney, accountant or financial professional in a recovery program. …

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