Estate planning. We all know we should do it, but current studies estimate that 67% of Americans have not. The planning process varies by estate planner, but a handful of myths about the process stop many people from ever contacting an estate planner. This article addresses five of those myths.
Myth 1: Estate planning is only about death.
Estate planning conversations often start with death. Many estate planners ask the terrible question, “What do you want to happen with your assets after you die?” That highlights mortality–even though most people try hard not to think about their deaths. If that is the main topic, no wonder these conversations often grind to a halt.
There are other, more fulfilling topics in estate planning. They make estate planning about the much more palatable topic of living.
Parents dream about their children’s futures all the time. Estate planning discussions should focus on this. (Clients who are not parents have other people they want to support, such as nieces and nephews, and dream about helping them.) How would the conversation go if the question was, “Tell me something you want to help Xavier do in life.” Maybe the answer is practical, like “buy a house” or “have a nice wedding.” But perhaps it can be phrased broadly, like “learn to think for himself so he can assess situations and make a true-to-himself decision about how to proceed.”
True, these things may not happen until after a client has died. But planning to accomplish these kinds of objectives is not about death. It is about planning for the client’s life goals. It is about planning to help your important people in meaningful ways. It is about preparing for life.
Myth 2: Never tell your children about your plans.
The reading of the will is a famous scene on TV and in movies. The scenes bring us to the edges of our seats. It can bring tears of joy or frustration, sighs of relief, and shocked gasps. It is a terrible way for beneficiaries to learn about their interests. A cold reading of a document will not tell the beneficiaries anything about what the client was thinking.
Suppose Sarah gets a check for $100,000 and a cover letter describing the money as “full distribution of her interest under her father’s will.” How should she spend the money? Is it for her, or is it really for paying her son’s education expenses? What did her brother get? More? Less? And where did the rest of the money go? Should she talk to him about it, or will that make things uncomfortable between them?
Compare that messy situation to one where Dad explained his thoughts. Would Sarah feel better knowing her parents had committed to a charity, so part of their assets would sustain programs they found very productive? Would she feel better if she knew that her parents had decided to split everything else equally between her and her brother? Would she feel better if Dad had told her that he wished he had been more supportive of her gift for painting and wanted her to pursue that?
It may be difficult for a client to start these conversations. Children seem more reluctant than parents to raise the subject. Family dynamics might prevent it, but this writer finds that thoughtful discussion about estate plans brings another benefit. Children who have heard about a plan and had the opportunity to explore the reasons for the plan start to think of the plan as the “family’s plan,” not just “Mom and Dad’s plan.” This distinction is essential with the tremendous growth in trust and estate litigation. It reduces questions about what Mom and Dad were thinking and encourages acceptance of a plan the whole family crafted together.
Myth 3: My kids will become lazy if they know they will inherit.
Warren Buffett said he wants to give his kids enough so they feel they can do anything but not so much they can do nothing. He captured a common concern: If I talk to my kids about inheritance, they will stop being productive.
First, recognize that Mr. Buffett is in a very different situation to most of us. His children could do nothing and live on interest and dividends if reports are accurate that he plans to leave each of them $2 billion. The Federal Reserve’s statistics show that the average U.S. inheritance is about $46,000. Less than 3% of people inherit $1 million. Between 70 and 80% of households receive no inheritance at all. In other words, “do nothing” is not a real choice for most of our children.
So, what is the concern Mr. Buffett captured? Look at the first part of his comment. He wants to give his kids enough to feel they can do anything. He wants them to use their gifts and strengths, realize what will be fulfilling, and head in that direction, knowing they have support.
Many estate planners talk about keeping children productive, and the practical ones create plans that provide opportunities one way or another. The best planners encourage discussions between parents and children so they can talk about their hopes and dreams for their children instead of tasking an executor or trustee to figure things out on their own.
Myth 4: My kids don’t know we have a lot of money.
At lunch one day, a woman told her companion that her kids did not know the family had a lot of money, to which the companion replied, “Oh, please. They’ve never stood in a TSA security line.”
Today, a few internet searches will give a child a good sense of their family’s financial situation. Zillow tells them how much their house is worth. Kelley Blue Book tells them how much their family cars are worth. NetJet’s costs are available online. They see price tags on clothes. The internet is loaded with details about successful people, including their salaries. The information is there, so how do we approach it?
Working hard and having nice things is part of the American dream. Buying and appreciating an expensive watch may bring moments of happiness. But when the watch becomes essential to happiness, something has gone wrong. The hope is that our children do not confuse spending power with happiness. It is especially harmful when children conclude that their parents’ spending power is somehow their spending power. If their happiness comes from something they will not be able to sustain on their own, they are set up for disappointment.
Turning back to the myth, children know more than we want to admit. They have a good idea of their family’s wealth. Talking with them in appropriate ways will help both parent and child navigate the pitfalls of wealth.
Myth 5: I’m not ready to make long-lasting decisions.
Perfection can be the enemy of progress. Clients can get bogged down trying to the create a perfect estate plan. Just the thought of addressing complicated issues can stop the process.
Take the choice of guardians as an example. Who will raise your young kids if you can’t? Mom thinks of her parents, and Dad thinks of his brother. Just the potential for tense conversations over this issue is enough to stop the process.
The reality is that Mom and Dad do not need to be in complete agreement on this. If Mom convinces Dad to name her parents and if Dad outlives Mom, he can change the instructions. On this topic, the surviving parent gets the last word (subject to the court’s review of whether living with Dad’s brother is in the children’s best interests). This fact can get the process moving again, although it should be handled carefully to avoid minimizing the importance of this decision.
The choice of guardian brings up another issue. Suppose Mom and Dad agreed that Dad’s brother is a good choice. Brother is married. Are Mom and Dad naming just the brother? Or are they naming both the brother and his wife? What if the brother divorces his wife after they have become guardians? The kids might end up in a custody battle between the brother and his ex-wife. Mom and Dad surely did not intend that to happen. So, if the brother is the person Mom and Dad want to have the job, they should only nominate him. Mom and Dad should not mention the wife unless they want to give her legal rights over their kids.
On a broader note, the foundational estate planning documents (living trust, pour-over wills, health care directives, durable powers of attorney for finance, and guardian nominations) are changeable until incapacity or death. Estate planners encourage clients to review them every few years in case a life change means the plan needs to be updated. This means clients can put a viable plan in place today, knowing it can – and should – be changed as time goes by.
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Estate planning crosses people’s minds at certain pivot points – typically, when a second child is born, the youngest finishes college, the oldest gets married, and retirement approaches. The five myths addressed in this article often stop people from taking the important steps of creating or updating an estate plan. When a client focuses on their personal objectives for their beneficiaries and discusses them with their children, the myths dissolve. And estate planning becomes much about life than death.