Magazine article Insight on the News

When There's No Will ...: It's Never Too Early for Estate Planning, Especially When Adult Children Are Involved. (Money)

Magazine article Insight on the News

When There's No Will ...: It's Never Too Early for Estate Planning, Especially When Adult Children Are Involved. (Money)

Article excerpt

Elder-law attorney Robert E. Morin observes a lot of dissension in his line of business. Everywhere he looks he sees family members--sons and daughters, nieces and nephews--fighting over the assets of the deceased. The prized Chinese scroll. Mom's antique emerald ring. The French-seaside painting over the mantel.

Many people refuse or neglect to plan and discuss their twilight years with their children, ultimately leaving their heirs without legal backup and essentially willing loved ones a blank page on which to project desires for the distribution of their assets.

"The way I like to say it is that you need to think about, plan and discuss the last one-third of your life as diligently as the first two-thirds," says Morin, a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. "In doing so, you take the pressure off your children. It's really a gift to them to let them know your wishes--it prevents confusion, dissension and disagreement."

Parents generally enjoy discussing how they're going to live, not the nuts and bolts of their eventual deaths--let alone designing a contract about it. "Death is always a difficult subject for either parents or children" says Sally Hurme, a lawyer and a consumer-protection specialist at AARP. "It's hard for parents to talk about their impending mortality, and it's also very difficult for the adult kids to start the conversation. It's like 'I can't wait 'til you go.' I think there's generally a feeling that 'we don't want to appear impatient or greedy.'"

In addition, a mystique surrounds the issue of estate planning, says Hurme. "You look back to the movies and the great drama of the reading of the will in the lawyer's office and the great elements of surprise when people don't get what they're anticipating. This is very much Hollywood, and I think makes for good movies but bad family harmony."

Family loyalty often goes out the window when money comes up, says Jeffrey L. Condon, a family inheritance-planning attorney who practices in Santa Monica, Calif. "It's a whole new ball game," says Condon, who also cowrote Beyond the Grave: The Right Way and the Wrong Way of Leaving Money to Your Children (and Others). "It's human nature. People presume everything will go okay after their death with the respect to the transfer of wealth. Maybe it will, but we never rely on that presumption."

It's essential to talk about end-of-life decisions and asset distribution before age begins to take its toll on family members, Condon says. If an inheritance plan is discussed and executed correctly, parents can minimize the likelihood of dissension among family members. "But if it's bad, you have increased the chances of causing estrangement in the family" Condon says. General instruction to divide personal property "equally" may not apply, for example, because a parent may have promised a certain item to a certain child. Or one child may have staked out a certain item and feel entitled to it.

People can expect to pay about $250 an hour for the services of an estate-planning attorney, Morin says. A lawyer will ask questions about property and estimated net worth. He also will probe into family matters: Are there children who have problems? Bankruptcy matters with children? Do the parents have any estate-tax problems? Based on this discussion, the client and lawyer can create either a simple will or a living trust.

A living trust serves as an alternative to a will; it is set up when the grantor is alive. All or most debts are transferred into a living trust and then the grantor administers it as a trustee. At the time of his death, assets in the living trust are distributed according to the provisions, bypassing court supervision.

Condon suggests that parents convene a family meeting with adult children to discuss their ideas for asset distribution. "Talk about the proposed plan and see if the children have any problems," he says. …

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