Drafting your will and creating your estate plan is a very individual activity. Often the people and causes that are important to you are the same or similar to your spouse’s people and causes but not always. Sometimes the objects of your affection will be shared within the broader family as well.
Once you have identified who you want to honor, you still have to decide if equal distributions are fair distributions. If the distributions are not equal, you have to decide if a fair distribution is based on affection or need or both. Many people have strong opinions about the right way to deal with the estate.
Maybe I am one of those people who have strong opinions about estate plans. I think it is good and healthy to talk about your estate plans with your heirs (technically, your legatees). It seems especially important to talk about your plans if you have an unequal distribution or are constraining some distributions differently than other distributions. In these cases, your reasons for differentiating the distribution are probably much more straight-forward than your legatee will imagine when you are not around to explain.
Recently, I was taken aback when given the opportunity to review one of my clients’ estate planning documents. A sticky-note on the first page of the plan said, “Confidential—do not show to anyone.”
Apparently, these were instructions from the attorney to my clients. Shouldn’t my clients be able to decide who they want to see those documents? At one level, my cliets’ choices in their estate plan are their business and their business alone. At the same time, they might save time and expense for their estate to get any issues lurking in the estate plan on the table before they die.
Consider scheduling a family meeting to review your estate plan. Recognizing that money discussions are difficult, you may want to have a facilitator for the meeting who is not a family member (a financial planner, an attorney or other advisor might be a good choice). Meet with the facilitator before the family meeting to anticipate any issues that might come up and decide how to handle the issues. If necessary, have a side conversation with any members of the family to uncover and resolve—or schedule another time to resolve—any significant obstacles.
Sometimes, the decisions in your estate plan are well thought out decisions that can be explained to your legatees. A few decisions may be made because a decision had to be made (like your executor and trustees) and a particular person was available to fill the role. Rarely, those legatees may have additional information that causes you to change your plans.
Have a family meeting to allow your family to see just how much you love and care for them. Do not leave them in the dark wondering if you were offended at something your family has done or failed to do.
Your estate plan is unique. Explain those unique elements to your family; do not keep it confidential.