Step 1: Make a plan.
Step 2: Communicate your plan.
Just having an estate plan is foundational. If you have an estate plan, you're better off than 60% of Americans. BUT if the key components of that plan aren't communicated clearly to the right people ahead of time, things may not work as smoothly as you hope. At Tallgrass Estate Planning, we strongly recommend holding a family meeting to discuss the key components of your estate plan: how it is structured, who the key players are, and what you're trying to accomplish.
Every family is different, so (HOPEFULLY) every family's estate plan is different. This means that every family meeting should also be a bit different. As a starting point, we'd like to recommend the following basic agenda for your family meeting.
Who Should Attend?
Your family meeting should include you, your children and other beneficiaries (or legal representatives of your beneficiaries, if they are minors or incapacitated persons or charities), your successor trustees, executors, powers of attorney, and medical proxies, and your key advisors, like your estate planning attorney and financial advisor.
In other words, everyone who will be affected by your plan or who had a hand in creating it should be present to discuss it.
What Should You Talk About?
Documents: Clarify which legal documents are part of your plan - revocable trusts, irrevocable trusts, wills, powers of attorney, advance directives, business succession plans, etc. Where are these documents kept? How and when should they be accessed?
Fiduciaries: Talk about who is named as trustee, trust protector, executor, power of attorney, medical proxy, guardian, or other fiduciary role. How and why were these people chosen? What will be their responsibilities? Are they willing to serve? Do they have the right disposition or temperament to serve? Do they have any questions or concerns? Are there any tensions about your choice of fiduciaries that need to be resolved?
Beneficiaries: Be clear about who benefits from your estate plan and possibly who doesn't. When do they benefit? Are there any conditions or incentives to protect and preserve the assets? Are there contingencies?
Purposes: Discuss what drove you to create the type of estate plan you have. Do you simply want to avoid probate? Or are you trying to create some asset protection for long-term care or liabilities? Are you trying to reduce tax liabilities? Are you trying to keep certain assets in your family? Do you want to ensure preservation of principal over time? If there are conditions on benefits, is this due to concerns about bad financial decision making or due to more general asset protection priorities?
Assets: Manage expectations and future problems by being transparent at this point. What types of assets are included in your estate plan? How much are they worth? Is the plan to deplete those assets during your lifetime or to preserve them or to grow them? What potential tax consequences, if any, does your family need to prepare for? Are there assets that will require sophisticated administration, such as a business or a complicated investment portfolio?
The prospect of talking about some of these things may seem intimidating. Or you might be afraid this conversation will cause more problems than it solves. Maybe it will bring up old wounds or suspicions. True, that might happen. But it is better to confront these issues now, while you can help your family navigate those waters, than to have it all come up as a surprise in a crisis. If there are underlying tensions in your family, this conversation could be an opportunity for healing. Avoiding the topic will likely make things worse in the long run.
Who Should Lead the Meeting?
It is your plan, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're in the best position to facilitate the conversation. It can be helpful to have your attorney or advisor walk everyone through this conversation, discuss the various legal documents and strategies, and mediate any issues that might come up along the way.
This also helps build a connection between your family and your counsel, which will be very helpful during a crisis. When you become incapacitated or after you die, your family will likely need some guidance. It's always better to establish trust while things are relatively calm than assume everyone will know who to contact and what to do in an emergency.
How Often Should You Meet?
You should meet as soon as practical after you create your plan. For some families, this single meeting may be enough. The plan and assets are simple enough and the relationships are stable enough that one conversation is sufficient.
For other families - especially when there is a family business, significant assets, multi-generational planning, complicated relationships, special needs, etc - it may be helpful to hold a meeting annually or every 2-3 years to make sure everyone remains clear about the roles and priorities.
These periodic meetings don't need to be dry or sterile. This can be a prime opportunity to build family cohesion, tell stories, shape shared values, create memories, practice vulnerability, and otherwise construct a narrative about what it means to be part of your family, who you are, and what matters to you.
You might start the tradition of holding an annual family reunion and using a couple of hours of your time together to revisit the plan. By talking about it regularly, you will be in a better position to make purposeful modifications over time to reflect the ways your family dynamic, values, and assets may be evolving.
Here's the point: These conversations are not natural or easy for most people, but that doesn’t mean they aren't meaningful and crucial. Get in the practice now of teaching your family how to talk about aging, sickness, death, money, relationships, and values. The topics are heavy, but you lighten each other's load when you talk about them.
Here's the stuff we always put at the end: If you want to know more, we would love to talk with you. Best part, the conversation about how it could benefit you doesn't cost anything. If you're in the Tulsa area, call us at (918) 770-8940, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're in the Oklahoma City area, call (405) 358-3548 or send an email to email@example.com.
Disclaimer: Reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship, and it is not formal legal advice. This is for information purposes only. It is always best to speak with an attorney about your questions, assets, concerns, and needs.