Getting understanding and clarification from the deceased is rather difficult. For more than 25 years, I have been involved in many estate planning situations with varying outcomes. Inevitably, situations that were “peaceful and easy” shared two common denominators: communication and preparation. In contrast, strife-filled and unnecessarily expensive situations were often the result of confusion and frustration about the deceased’s desires.
Many families are torn apart after a parent or grandparent passes and some readers will assume that because their estate isn’t of a certain “size” this article is not for them. Please read on, as money is rarely the root of division in a family estate. While money and assets are at the center of the discussion, it is a lack of clear communication regarding the deceased’s wishes that more often ignites emotions.
My grandparents had six children but little in the way of financial assets. I can write this now because most of the players involved have passed on. My grandfather instructed that an auction be held after his passing in which everything would be sold, including the house and contents. All proceeds were to be divided equally among the children. These instructions seemed like a reasonable plan to execute and my grandparents’ simple last will and testament sufficed the legalities.
My grandfather had a shotgun he carried on hunting outings during my uncle’s childhood. The gun wasn’t worth much to anyone except to my uncle and grandfather. There is little doubt in my mind that Grandpa would have excluded the gun from the “sell everything” clause if he had thought about the financial issue. A different uncle had more financial resources, meant no harm and bought the gun at the auction. This small purchase – probably less than $100 – created an enormous amount of family tension.
This situation and many like it I’ve witnessed over the years inspired me to set some ground rules for estate planning.
The most important rule: Be explicitly clear about what you want to happen. Make sure your spouse and children know where you want to be buried or cremated. Be clear about the funeral home you would like your family to use and tell them as much about the type of service you prefer as you can articulate. If a personal conversation is too difficult, you can express your desires via a video or letter, but do your family a favor and spell out your wishes. When people pass away, emotion and grief arrive at the same time many decisions must be made. Your letter or video can add peace and clarity to a difficult situation.
Having updated legal documents that actually do what you want them to do is also helpful! Many people have last wills and testaments that they believe will cover all their assets and divide everything appropriately. Remember, an asset with a beneficiary designation never gets to the will. You could unintentionally leave out children, charities or even spouses. Be clear and write out your thoughts and desires.
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