Effectively planning an estate is more complicated than deciding “who gets what”—it should involve a more holistic approach to key aspects that ensure
the client’s (trustor) 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.
The main goal of a family meeting is to share information about the client’s estate with family members. This can help to prevent surprises, should the client become incapacitated or pass away, as well as to minimize disagreements and discord. Typical objectives for the meeting include:
- communication to all beneficiaries
- about decisions
- surprises about asset distribution
- roles and help family members understand responsibilities
- that the client is of sound mind when making decisions
- directive choices can be clearly articulated
- with any conflict issues while the client is still living
Why do some avoid a family meeting?
For various reasons, some clients want to avoid holding a family meeting. Some of the excuses offered include that “it will be awkward,” wondering if beneficiaries could get upset, feeling the details are private and not wanting to discuss them with others, or wanting to just let a trustor’s beneficiaries find out after death. Of course, every client needs to weigh such factors and decide whether it is best to hold a family meeting or not. However, consider that a grieving family does not need a feud (or even worse, litigation). Unfortunately, this can easily occur if surprises happen when distributing an estate. Overall, while it may be uncomfortable to talk about mortality, it is typically best for beneficiaries to hold a family meeting so that the client can be in charge, explain final wishes, and can clearly address any concerns.
Who should participate?
Many clients ask their attorneys to help run the meeting because of the attorney’s expertise, as well as having a third party in charge helps keep things civil if disagreements arise. It also helps the client’s family to become comfortable working with the representing attorney in advance of executing final wishes.
The client should decide whom to invite, depending on personal circumstances. Typically, it is beneficiaries, such as adult children or siblings, or if there is no living family, close friends, or other designated beneficiaries. Another consideration is whether to invite in-laws of children. Overall, it is important to invite those who play an important role in meeting the client’s goals.
What should be on the agenda?
Keep in mind that family meetings do not need to be delayed until the client is incapacitated or on a death bed, or held only once and never revisited. Every situation is different. For example, a family meeting might be held soon after a 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.
Depending on the client’s goals and family dynamics, the agenda for the meeting can be diverse or quite concise. Here is a list of some typical agenda items that are often discussed:
- for holding the meeting: clear communication of client’s wishes, avoiding conflicts, other concerns.
- of family relationships: maintaining interaction, taking care of each other, and related goals.
- personal values, morals, and ethics affect one’s final wishes.
- opportunity for the executor to explain their perspective on personal religious beliefs and desires for the family.
- structure: technical aspects of the estate plan, which is usually explained by the estate planning attorney.
- designations, or who is included in the will.
- of trustee/executor. Providing the reasoning for this decision can help to avoid ill-will (after client’s passing) toward the trustee/executor from other beneficiaries.
- of assets. This is particularly important for estates with a broad array of assets, holdings in different states or countries, assets held in different business names, assets that have been or will be sold soon, and the like.
- distribution of assets. Many clients prefer to discuss distributions (including spousal, children, charitable, etc.) in order to be specific on their wishes and address any concerns.
- requests. This agenda item allows beneficiaries to request sentimental items or other items that are within the client’s parameters.
- changes prior to passing. A living will allows for modifications at any time, so it is often explained that plans can change after a family meeting (especially for asset distribution).
- directive. This is a sensitive area that is often best explained by the attorney who can communicate the client’s wishes in the event of being unconscious or too ill to communicate.
- arrangements. Most clients have some idea of what they would like, whether it is simple cremation or a fully orchestrated event.
Managing Final Affairs
Estate planning is about the client’s final wishes. But it’s also about making sure their family is provided for after passing on. Giving careful thought, and action, to the entire estate planning process is critical to meeting these goals. A family meeting can be a very effective tool to aid in this process and is usually a positive, comforting, and useful event for all concerned.
Tamsen R. Reinheimer, is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law (The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization) at Mortensen & Reinheimer, PC in Irvine. She has significant experience in all aspects of estate planning, trust administration, and probate. Contact Tamsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in Orange County Lawyer, January 2022 (Vol. 64 No. 1), p. 38. The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of Orange County Lawyer magazine, the Orange County Bar Association, the Orange County Bar Association Charitable Fund, or their staffs, contributors, or advertisers. All legal and other issues must be independently researched.