Having a conversation with your adult children about your estate planning choices can be emotionally challenging, not to mention the host of potentially difficult practical decisions to be made. But the benefits of having a conversation now can make the difference between continued family harmony, or years of legal wrangling and broken relationships after you are gone. Here are a few tips to serve as a starting point for this important conversation:
1. Schedule the time
Holidays, birthdays, and family vacations, are perfect timing because everyone is together at some point. Let them know in advance that you want to talk about it, so they can be prepared.
2. Make a list of major assets
You may not want to share all the details of your estate with your children yet, and that's fine. Yet you should make sure you've covered everything, and haven't forgotten important assets. It can be helpful for the children just to know where everything is: Dad has an account here, a life insurance policy with this company, and mom has investments there, and all the paperwork for everything is in the upstairs file cabinet in the top drawer. Don't assume your children know where everything is - especially if you have a hard time finding it yourself!
3. Discuss the division of assets
Even if you intend to divide everything equally, having a conversation with the family can bring out whether there are assets the family wants to keep in the family, or if one person wants a certain item as part of their inheritance. Sometimes the family will agree to keep a vacation home available for everyone for example. If you aren’t planning on dividing things equally, decide how best to communicate your reasoning. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to discuss your reasons with everyone. You might consider leaving a note explaining your decision instead.
4. Ask them to list personal property items that are meaningful to them
You might be surprised at what holds important memories to different children. If they submit the list to you without having to reveal it to the other siblings you can eliminate any embarrassment. Going through the lists yourself you can foresee potential arguments and make decisions to help keep the family peace long after you are gone. Your children will be grateful for your forethought.
5. Ask about their own estate planning goals
You may want to incorporate their goals into your own plans. Grandchildren and college planning are always key issues to cover. The retirement cabin, for example, is that something that everyone wants, or no one wants or just one child?
6. Passing on the family business
Family businesses may employ one or more children, perhaps even extended family members. As part of your retirement plan, consider how best to pass the baton to the next generation. Those discussions should focus on who is best able to continue the business. Then, you can discuss with your estate planner and tax advisor how best to ensure that the operation can continue, and the best strategy to ensure the siblings who don’t want the business receive their inheritance, and the person taking over the business isn’t crippled with debt. The most successful strategies I’ve seen have been ones that pass responsibility to the next generation in steps while the parents are alive to provide input and direction.
7. Discuss who will be in charge
As with any of these topics, you will have to decide whether it is better to introduce this as an accomplished fact, or solicit opinions for consideration. After a person is gone, sometimes the children are left with a lot of “why” questions. These questions leave a hole because the only person who can answer is gone, and there is no way of obtaining and answer. By having conversations now, those “why” questions can be eliminated. I think you’ll find it’s an emotional investment well worth it.
Originally posted October 16, 2014. Updated for freshness and accuracy.