Oct 01, 2008

No Surprises: Let Your Kids Know What You're Planning

mother daughter talking.jpgIt's natural enough that, as parents age, their adult children begin to think about what they'll inherit and how. This can make parents feel uncomfortable and adult children feel ghoulish. Some families -- I suspect many -- just don't discuss it. How do you tell your kids that you feel one should inherit more, and that another's already gotten all the support they'll need? How do you broach the entire topic with a parent that you love very much, but see fading? But, like so many family issues, it's a conversation very much worth having, and not just for the wealthy.

Estate planning is an act of love, after all. It's about the orderly transfer of what you've managed to accumulate. If you've taken the time to think hard about who needs what you've got and the best way to transfer it to them responsibly, you've gone a very long way to making that transition easier for everyone.

So why not take the next step and at least outline the plan to those concerned? You don't, of course, have to disclose the details if that's uncomfortable. But you can communicate the broad outlines: Are there charities that you intend to support? Are you planning to treat all of your children equally, or are there reasons not to? 

According to a recent article in the New York Times by David Cay Johnston, it's not just a good idea to talk to your kids -- it can significantly lessen the chance that they will challenge your estate plan in court after your death. In his article, Johnston quotes Gerald Le Van, one of the few family wealth mediators in the country, who says, "[T]he children and grandchildren may not like your choices, but at least they feel like you treated them as adults, that you genuinely asked what they wanted and they can then say to themselves, 'O.K., this is not what I wanted, but you don't always get what you want.'"

In second marriages, where there can be deep tension between the adult children of a first marriage and the often much-younger spouse of a second marriage, clear communication can be even more important.

The Times article also quotes Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist who runs the Web site MoneyHarmony.com, who said that even middle-aged children tended to "interpret the absence of money in a will as being the absence of love from a parent."

When children cannot accept an uneven split or some of the money going to a stepparent, Ms. Mellan recommends telling them: "This is the only way I can die peacefully. I love you, but when it comes to my money, this is what I have to do."