Over 20 years of estate planning experience has taught me a lot about what parents should and should not share with their children. Too often, a parent may insist on discussing the unimportant (i.e. why his or her parent favored an older sister) and refuse to share the important (i.e. why a youngest child was chosen to receive a wedding ring). As a recent Wall Street Journal article suggests (“Five Reasons for Parents to Reveal Estate Plans”, Sept. 21, 2014), disclosing the specifics about your will or trust can be very beneficial to your children.
The benefits of disclosing the contents of your estate plan can be significant. Not only can it help avoid hard feelings or fighting amongst children, but the input from children can be extremely helpful. While in some instances full disclosure may not be appropriate, here are a few reasons for parents not to keep secrets about their estate plan:
1. Avoid hard feelings. Anger over a parent’s will can last a lifetime especially if the distributions to children are unequal. For example, discussing the reason for giving more money to a child that isn’t as well off as other children can help everyone better understand the parent’s decision and alleviate hurt feelings.
2. Avoid mistakes and hassles. Parents often refuse to share anything regarding their legal or financial business with their children. As a result, when the parents die or become disabled, the children are left scrambling to figure out what their parents owned and whether they even had a will or trust. The loss of a parent is difficult enough without also having to sort out all the legal and financial issues.
3. Children can provide some good advice. Sometimes a parent’s decision over who to nominate as a trustee, health care or financial agent, or personal representative may not be the best choice. Perhaps a child does not have the time to handle the responsibilities or is not comfortable making such decisions. By discussing it with children ahead of time, a parent can nominate the child who is better able to handle such matters.
Remember, surprises are enjoyable for birthdays, not for planning your estate.