An estate plan is more likely to accomplish your goals if you are properly educated about estate planning, understand and regularly review your plan, and update it as necessary. Even if you have a clear understanding, however, you will not be there to actually implement your plan. The individuals left to implement the plan—typically your family members or friends nominated as your executors, trustees and guardians—may not learn about the existence of an estate plan until it’s too late. In other words, it makes little difference whether you understand the intricacies of your plan if those expected to implement the plan know little, if anything, about the plan, its intent or their roles and duties.
Many people do have a conversation with their executors, trustees and guardians. It usually includes a humble request to act in that role, and an “I’m honored” response by those trusted individuals, along with a sincere statement about being willing to help in any way. That is typically the extent of the conversation. The estate plan and their role in carrying out the plan are rarely discussed or revisited until after your death. At that point, those you leave behind are thrust into the role of executor, trustee or guardian and are expected to know what to do, but will be grieving and/or juggling other practical issues such as locating, identifying and organizing personal and financial items you've left behind, or cleaning out the family home. They may also be dealing with the strain of dealing with the emotional impact of the death of a loved one. It can be very difficult for them to learn about their roles and take action according to your estate plan while grieving. They could fail to act, procrastinate, shut down or leave the process to other professionals as a result, increasing the cost of and decreasing control over the process.
Early communication with and education of those we leave behind is crucial. Your estate planning attorney is legally required, however, to keep client confidences. Unfortunately, this rule and others like it prevent that open communication. However, if you consent to your attorney communicating with individuals and family members you trust about your specific plan and any special issues, many of the obstacles and conflicts can be avoided, as long as you are close and not in conflict with your family. This is especially true if your comprehensive estate plan is built to minimize conflicts.
One alternative is to communicate during your life with family members and other individuals you trust in a family meeting setting, explaining what your estate plan is, how the plan should be implemented, and why you have taken certain steps or planned it out this way. This should take place after all the documents are signed and assets are funded. It should include your trusted family members, your estate planning attorney, anyone you have asked to play a role, and any trusted financial advisors. You have the opportunity to communicate your plan with your estate planning attorney providing additional insight. Having that third-party professional communicate the intent and mechanics of the plan to your family and others while in your presence is a powerful tool to increase the chances that the plan will be implemented the way you would like and in a way that makes sense for your family.
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Reference: WealthCounsel Quarterly (July 2009) “New Estate Planning Model Takes Care of Families”