The Family Meeting: An Essential Part of Your Estate Plan

Perhaps the biggest risk to a well-organized estate plan is the ignorance that arises from poor communication and the lack of a basic understanding of how estates are administered.

Most people never disclose the estate planning decisions they have made during their lifetime to loved ones, successor trustees, executors, and agents. Those left behind can only imagine what the deceased family member really wanted. In addition, surviving fam-ily members are often unaware of whether estate planning documents have even been prepared, much less where they are located. There are countless stories of families unable to find the will that mom or dad mentioned to some, but not all, of the children. This leaves everyone in the dark; the unfortunate result is often misunderstanding and conflict.

A good estate plan, whether organized around a will or a trust, requires a certain amount of knowledge about the process of administering the estate and how the various legal documents work. Most family members lack even a basic understanding of the estate administration process and rely on what they have learned from Hollywood movies and false assumptions. It is surprising how many families try to decipher the final wishes of parents based on long past conversations, cryptic notes, family traditions, and personal perceptions of fair-ness. This is a recipe for disaster.

The attorneys at Foley, Foley & Pearson have long advocated holding family meetings to ensure that children, trustees, key advisors, agents, and managers understand our clients’ wishes and know where the important estate planning documents are located. That is why we suggest our Generations clients hold family meetings with an attorney who can answer questions about the legal documents and explain the responsibilities of successor trustees, personal representatives, health care decision makers, and agents. We also host free workshops and seminars, to better explain how wills and trusts work and how they are administered. Here are some of the basic issues a family meeting with an attorney can address:

  • Identify each of the legal documents (Trust, Will, Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive, Community Property Agreement) and explain the purpose of each document. Discuss where the legal documents will be located and how the family can locate the documents quickly at the time of death or disability.
  • Educate the successor trustees, personal representatives, and agents about their responsibilities when administering an estate and explain the steps to be taken to complete the administration.
  • Assure family members they have the right to know what is going on at each stage of the administration and explain to family members who will serve as agents their responsibility to keep everyone informed of the administration progress.
  • Explain the purpose and function of the professional advisors who will be needed to help the fiduciaries perform their duties and discuss the fees and costs associated with using professional advisors to assist in the estate administration.
  • If desired, the attorney can help the senior generation explain the decisions they have made. For instance, why did they select agents in the order named? Why was one family member named as an agent while another wasn’t? Why were the agents named in a certain order or required to work as a team?
  • Identify all assets and the estate value and describe how the assets will be distributed and protected for future generations.
  • Identify difficult assets that might need to be handled in a special way, like the home, family business, or “one-of-a-kind” family heirlooms.
  • Explain why an inheritance was left in one or more trusts rather than outright and demonstrate why that decision was a wise one and not simply arbitrary.
  • Build and strengthen family ties and relationships through communication, education, and explanation. Build relationships between key advisors and the next generation.
  • Communicate important family values from the older generation to the younger generations.
  • Answer questions from children and fiduciaries so that everyone feels comfortable about the plan and how the decisions were made.

We like to talk with our clients prior to the family meeting to ensure that we cover all of the issues they desire and that details they prefer not to share with everyone are not discussed. Sometimes our clients worry about raising these issues for fear it will create conflicts and hurt feelings. In fact, this is exactly what may happen if the senior generation leaves behind a plan the children know nothing about. Communication can help children understand that their parents’ decisions were purposeful and carefully considered, based on good counsel. If there is no communication during lifetime, children may try to undermine some aspects of the plan, feeling that the parents made the wrong decisions because they didn’t fully understand their implications. A family meeting may prevent this unfortunate result.

If you are a Generations client and you want to hold a family meeting, contact our office to schedule a time for your family meeting. If everyone isn’t available locally, some of your family members and fiduciaries may participate in a conference call.