This year, we’re inviting a handful of our most trusted colleagues to share their ideas and expertise on topics of interest to our clients. For this blog, we’re happy to introduce you to Curtis Kaiser, JD/MBA. Curtis, a Board Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law, founded the Kaiser Law Group in Long Beach, California in 2007 with the intent to deliver estate planning with incomparable service.
I often joke that my grandparents were the original “millionaires next door.” Neither of them ever made over $40k in a single year – my grandfather was a meter reader for the DWP in Los Angeles and my grandmother was a teacher. They had a number of attributes that led to building wealth in their later years. They did a remarkable job of balancing living for today with saving for tomorrow and they always invested in good financial and legal advice.
My grandparents invested in an estate plan created by a reputable estate planning firm (this was in the 1990’s – so before I was an attorney!). They thought of their son (my father), as trustworthy and very financially astute and responsible, so they naturally named him the successor trustee of my grandparents’ trust. Their daughter (my aunt, who passed away a decade ago) unfortunately had issues with substance abuse and financial management, so my grandparents thought it was best to protect her from herself and others through the trust. My father was selected as trustee to manage the share set aside for his sister. As a final measure of protection, my grandparents agreed that because of my aunt’s situation, and not wanting to rock the boat and risk a negative reaction from her, they would not communicate with my aunt about their estate plan.
One of the main reasons I became an estate planning attorney was because of what happened next. You can imagine that after my grandparents’ deaths, my aunt felt completely overlooked by her parents. Along with her profound grief, she was also disappointed that she could not discuss her feelings with her parents. To worsen the situation, my father was put in the very difficult position of explaining to his sister that, in fact, he would be controlling her inheritance for her lifetime. The conflict between my father and his sister caused so much harm that in her grief, my aunt attempted to take her own life and pin the blame on her brother.
Although my family’s personal experience seems extreme, we’ve found that conflict after the passing of a loved one tends to be routine. For example, beneficiaries not named as trustee often take that choice as an insult and as a result, it often dredges up ancient grievances. Children of a deceased parent from blended families often are hurt that they are not receiving their inheritance from their deceased parent now, rather than only someday after the passing of the surviving spouse.
The best way to avoid these misunderstandings is to hold a family meeting to review your estate planning and intentions for your loved ones while everyone is safe and healthy. The family meeting usually consists of you, your children or other loved ones, your successor trustee, and your other trusted advisor(s). The purpose of the family meeting is to increase family communication and harmony surrounding the estate plan and head off misunderstandings to reduce potential conflict after your death. I’m not saying that it’s an easy meeting to consider having – especially when you are not in a position to treat your loved ones “equally,” but this direct and honest approach absolutely pays tremendous dividends for family understanding and unity in times of crisis.
Another way to help family understand your estate plans is to create a “Legacy Letter.” The Legacy Letter can add a great deal of “color” to your plan by sharing life lessons, traditions, and family history you wish to pass down as well as hopes and dreams for your children or other beneficiaries.
My parents recently completed their Legacy Letter, which was a real treat for my younger brother and me – especially because they shared a story that I hadn’t heard them tell. “We remember when we got married and had nothing. Mom wanted Dad to meet her family in New York, so we spent three days and three nights on a $99 roundtrip Greyhound bus ride.” The rest of the story gave us a lot to laugh and joke about. What I love about the Legacy Letters is that it’s one thing for you to tell your children and grandchildren “take care of the inheritance that we worked so hard to build for you.” It’s another to read about your family’s hopes, dreams, and intentions for those you love. Be sure to ask your trusted advisor (estate attorney or financial planner, like Inspired Financial) how they can help you with this. Our firm’s Legacy Program facilitates family meetings and helps clients create a Legacy Letter with a writer on our team.
Through my personal and professional experience, I have found that conflict, due to the lack of communication, occurs most of the time in the estate planning process. Working with your team at Inspired Financial and your estate planning attorney to facilitate more understanding about the plan and open communication about concerns and frustrations is an important foundation of what you are trying to achieve in the first place: taking care of your loved ones in a way that helps care for them financially and preserves and strengthens their relationships with each other.