I’m going to detail several ways you can keep your family out of court after you die, but one of them is far and away the most important: act while you are alive! It sounds obvious. After all, it’s difficult to put an estate plan in place after you die. That being said, estate planning can seem to some to have morbid undertones, and for that reason, it’s sometimes ignored. This is not the route you want to take if you want to keep your family out of court after you die.
We’ve all heard that putting an estate plan in place while alive is the smart thing to do. A comprehensive estate plan allows you to leave assets to those you intend in an efficient, cost-effective manner. Sure, your loved ones will avoid court, but there are even greater benefits to be had. In my experience, the greatest benefit of putting a comprehensive estate plan in place is that it allows you to prevent disputes among your family and loved ones after you have died. When those who inherit your property understand that what they are receiving is in accordance with your wishes, it is treated with a certain reverence and respect. When an inheritance is argued over and resolved in court, the damage to your family is long-lasting. Here are several steps you’ll want to take when putting your estate plan in place to avoid court and preserve family harmony after you’re gone:
Take action while you are young and healthy.
I can’t stress this enough. Putting a comprehensive estate plan in place while you are young and healthy is the most important thing you can do. An estate plan is not something to be put in place only when you’re “old” (whatever that means today, where life expectancies continue to grow). When you’re older and your children are grown and out of the house, an estate plan is actually less important, in my opinion. Your family can take care of themselves at that point. But what if you’re like my wife and I, the parents of two very young children? If something happens to us, our children are certainly not able to care for themselves. Who will care for them? Someone of our choosing or someone a court decides upon? How will their inheritance be protected both today and as they grow? The questions go on and on. If you’ve made it this far into this article, you clearly care about your family and loved ones. The time to act is now.
Involve your family.
Estate planning is extremely personal. Your wishes for the care of your children and who you want to receive your assets upon your death are entirely your decisions. That being said, a way to ensure family harmony is to involve your loved ones in your decision-making. By detailing the thought process that went into the decisions you made, your loved ones will have no choice but respect your wishes. They might not agree with the decisions, but they will respect them. This is the key to avoiding family strife after your death. We often conduct family meetings with our clients and their loved ones where the estate plan is discussed openly and honestly, and everyone is given an opportunity to be heard. The long-term benefits of such an open and honest discussion can’t be overstated.
If you decide to disinherit someone, make it clear why.
Disinheritance leads to more court battles and family disputes than anything else. If you have made the decision to disinherit someone, you’ll want to detail your reasons for doing so. You’ll also want to make it very clear that you intended to disinherit the person. Otherwise, you’re just asking for a court battle. Giving reasons why you’ve decided to disinherit someone is tricky since it could give that person a basis to object to the disinheritance. What we suggest clients do is detail in a confidential letter exactly why they have decided to disinherit someone. This letter remains with your lawyer, sealed and never to see the light of day unless the disinherited person decides to contest the matter in court.
Make sure that you have legal capacity when executing your estate plan.
This relates back to our advice to put your estate plan in place when you are young and healthy. If someone is looking to object to your estate plan, a common argument they will make is that you were elderly and/or mentally infirm and therefore lacked the legal capacity to execute the estate planning documents. If you are elderly and/or mentally infirm, I strongly suggest getting written opinions from two doctors confirming you have the mental capacity to execute the estate planning documents. Otherwise, you’re just giving someone an easy opportunity to object to your estate plan upon your death.
If you have questions about any of the above, or you’re simply looking to discuss your estate planning options, I would be happy to meet with you for a complimentary Family Wealth Planning Session. Contact our office to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk.