Talking About Estate Planning – Part I of 2

In many families, there is an uncomfortable silence when the subjects of death and money come up. According to Eileen and Jon Gallo, authors of Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children (McGraw-Hill, 2001), most adult children have no idea of their parents’ net worth, let alone the details of their estate plan. All too often, “when kids work up the courage to ask their parents for specifics, they often get slapped down.”

Some parents use their money as a means of controlling their children. They change their estate plan as a way of rewarding and punishing behavior. This article is not for those parents.

What should you tell your children about your estate plan? They don’t need to know all the details. In most instances it is unwise to provide the kids with actual copies of your current documents. The tax law will change, your circumstances may change, the children’s circumstances will change and you may make changes to the plan. Distributing copies gives a false sense of the permanence of the current disposition and raises expectations that may not be realized.

Nevertheless, you should tell your kids that you have addressed your plan, have made wills, powers of attorney and so forth. Assure them that you have considered the tax ramifications with qualified counsel and that you have made provisions for them to be effective after both parents are deceased (or whatever disposition you have in fact made.)

Talk to your kids about your furniture, jewelry, collections, heirlooms. Try to work out who gets what now. In my experience, the most bitter arguments come over the division of these items of personal property. Many times these pieces have little monetary value, but they are loaded with sentiment. Give your children the gift of resolving these issues while you are alive. Remember – everyone says their children won’t argue. Your children have argued before, and they will again. Don’t be in denial.

You don’t have to give your kids details about your finances, such as this month’s balance in your checking account and a list of holdings in your brokerage account. But you should prepare a list of your assets, their approximate values, and the contact persons for each holding. There should be a listing of professional advisors and how to reach them, and the location of stock certificates, life insurance policies, deeds, and evidences of debts. You can give the list to the kids, or you can just tell them where it can be found when the time comes. Update it from time to time.