Planning your estate is more complicated than deciding "who gets what" - it should involve a more holistic approach to key aspects that ensure your wishes are implemented. As such, an important but all-too-often overlooked step in the estate planning process is a "family meeting." This is often one of the final steps in the initial estate planning process. What is it and why is it important?
What is the purpose?
The main goal of a family meeting is to share information about your estate with family members. This can help to prevent surprises, should you become incapacitated or pass away, as well as to minimize disagreements and discord.
Typical objectives for the meeting include:
- Clear communication
- Remove surprises about asset distribution
- Explain roles and help family members understand responsibilities
- Demonstrate that you are of sound mind when making your decisions
- Healthcare directive choices can be clearly articulated
- Deal with any conflict issues while you're alive
Why do some avoid doing it?
For various reasons, some people want to avoid holding a family meeting. Some of the excuses given include "It will be awkward" or "What if they get mad?" or "That is private, I don't want to discuss it" or "Can't we just let my beneficiaries find out after I die?"
You'll need to decide whether it is best to hold a family meeting or not. Overall, while it may be uncomfortable to talk about mortality, it is much nicer to deal with the discussion while you are in good health.
A grieving family doesn't need a feud (or even worse, litigate). Unfortunately, this can easily occur if surprises happen when distributing an estate. As such, even though it may seem daunting, it is typically best for your beneficiaries to hold a family meeting, so that you can be in charge, explain your wishes, and can clearly address any concerns.
Many ask their attorney to assist in running the meeting, because of his/her experience and expertise, as well as a third party can help keep things civil if disagreements arise. It also benefits your family to become comfortable working with the attorney in advance of executing your final wishes.
You decide who to invite, depending on personal circumstances. Typically it is beneficiaries, such as adult children or siblings, or if you have no family, close friends or other designated beneficiaries. Another consideration is whether to invite in-laws of your children. Overall, it is important to invite those that are important to meet your goals (e.g., clear communication, avoiding hurt feelings, etc.).
What is the agenda?
Keep in mind that family meetings don't need to be delayed until you're on your death bed, or held only once and never revisited. Every situation is different. For example, you may decide to hold a family meeting after your living trust and will are initially prepared, then years later circumstances change (e.g., second marriages, changed relationships, investment portfolio changes, etc.) which lead to the desire to have another family meeting to keep everyone updated.
Depending on your goals and family dynamics, here are some agenda items to consider:
- Reasons for holding the meeting (i.e., clear communication of your wishes, avoid conflicts, etc.)
- Importance of maintaining family relationships and taking care of each other
- Your personal values, morals and ethics (and related impact on your final wishes)
- Religious goals
- Estate structure
- Beneficiary designations
- Selection of trustee/executor
- Description of your assets
- Planned distribution of assets (including spousal, children, charitable, etc.)
- Special requests (e.g., sentimental items)
- Potential changes prior to your passing (especially for asset distribution)
- Personal choices
- Health care needs
- Healthcare directive
- Funeral arrangements
Managing Your Affairs
Estate planning isn't just about your final wishes. It's also about making sure your family is provided for after you're gone. Giving careful thought, and action, to the entire estate planning process is critical to meeting your goals. Mortensen & Reinheimer PC would be pleased to help you with your family meeting needs. Visit our website for more information on estate planning services, or call Mortensen & Reinheimer, PC to set up a time to discuss your family meeting or other estate planning needs.
About the author:
Tamsen R. Reinheimer, Attorney, is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law (The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization). She has significant experience in all aspects of estate planning, trust administration, and probate. Contact Tamsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.