Monthly Archives: March 2015

5 Reasons Parents Should Discuss Their Estate Plans with Children

Gift to Grandchildren“What should I tell my children?,” is a common question I hear after clients execute their estate plans.  Few people enjoy discussing their own mortality.  And few parents speak openly to children about what will unfold financially after the parents die.  Parents may fear that by speaking about their estate planning it could ignite a family fight over who will receive what.  Further, many of my clients worry that children may become entitled and lose motivation to be financially responsible.

However, open communication can benefit both generations.  The parents can explain their decisions and the children can better plan their lives.  Further, children can provide feedback about their needs or lack thereof.  Also, parents and children can discuss tax considerations and develop more efficient plans.

Here are five reasons to tell children what is included in your estate plan before you die:

1. You can calm angered heirs.

Resentment among related heirs runs rampant after discovering Dad and Mom’s final wishes for the distribution of their estate.  Talking over the rationale for making unequal distributions can smooth ruffled feathers.  I have seen clients give more to children who have more children of their own as opposed to a child with no offspring.  I have clients who leave a greater share of their estate to a financially irresponsible child in trust so the child will not deplete the assets but they task a responsible child with making the distributions. Such an arrangement can be doubly painful for the financially prudent child. I have also seen heirs who resent their parents for leaving significant bequests to charities.  Parents can explain these decisions during their lifetimes, in their own words, to alleviate angry or bitter feelings.

2.  You can save hassles and prevent mistakes.

Children will be emotionally spent following the death of a parent.  If they have to search far and wide for estate planning documents and assets, they will be psychologically, physically and financially spent too.  Parents should let children know where to locate estate planning documents and what to expect within those documents.  If children are surprised by the deceased’s wishes, they may not execute those wishes properly.

3.  You may benefit your children’s lives now.

Parents should devote time to listening to and learning from their children about their financial wherewithal and work ethic.  Holding regular meetings or open dialogues would provide a golden opportunity for the parent to share their plans with the children.  Parents may withhold assets from children during financial struggles as part of a “tough love” approach. Yet, this approach can be viewed as stingy and cause children to question why Mom and Dad chose to withhold assets during the child’s difficulties.

4. Children might give you a better idea

Many of my clients hold significant wealth in a home or business.  I have had numerous clients wrongfully assume that their children want to keep the valuable home or operate the business.  I have come to expect that parent business owners do not discuss with their children whether the children want to keep the business.  Placing stipulations on the continued operation of a business or keeping a valuable real property in trust may not be the desire of the heirs.  Recently, I dissuaded a client out from keeping a family cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains in trust for his children’s lifetimes.  One child resides in another county and the other child works as a very busy professional in another state and has not been to the cabin in six years.  Seek your heirs input.

5. You may save children taxes

You should consider whether children need additional assets.  Also, be mindful of the type of asset you are passing down to a child.  Consider the difference between an IRA account in which future distributions will be taxed and a rental real estate property with an existing mortgage.  A beneficiary working as a school teacher will likely appreciate the additional income from the IRA much more than a beneficiary working as a highly-paid physician.  For even greater tax savings, you may be able to make asset transfers directly to grandchildren and skip the children altogether.

Can You Probate a Lost Will?

LWT March 2015   I once had a client whose husband had died many years previous, leaving a will in which he left all his property to her. The will had been prepared by a local attorney who later retired, and had died by the time the client retained me. The client had furnished a copy of the will to her accountant, who used it to prepare an estate tax return. However, the accountant only had a copy of the first few pages of the will, not including the signature pages. The client evidently lost the original will and could not locate a copy of it. All we had to go on was the copy of a portion of the will that the accountant had. I did my best to track down the original will or a copy. The drafting attorney was deceased and although I located his former secretary, she indicated that his files had not been retained; the will would have gone back to the client. In short, there was no extant copy of the full will.

Can you probate a lost will? In some instances, yes. If a will is lost by accident after the decedent’s death, or destroyed by fraud during the decedent’s lifetime and without his or her knowledge, a court may receive evidence of the execution and validity of the will. A lost will would have to be proved in the same way as other wills; the persons who witnessed the testator sign the will would have to testify to that fact. This may not be difficult if you know who the witnesses were and can locate them. Often the witnesses of a will are law office personnel. Most law office personnel who witness wills do so often enough that they would not be able to recall a particular instance; especially not where the will had been signed many years prior. If you can locate the witnesses and they remember the will, then the proponent of a lost will has to show that it is more likely than not that the will in question was never revoked by the testator; if no one objects, the court may admit it to probate. In the case of my client, we didn’t know who had witnessed the will because we did not have the signature pages or the pages signed by the witnesses. Without that, we could not offer the lost will for probate.

Lessons learned? Make sure your original will, and your spouse’s original will, are kept in a secure, fire safe location and that the location is known to those who will handle your estate at your death. Often an attorney’s office will store the original will in a vault. If your attorney retires and returns the original to you, put it in another safe place, such as a safe deposit box. Better yet, go to another attorney and see if the will needs updating; the new attorney may have a vault where the will and codicil could be stored. Make sure to keep full copies of the executed will. Finally, keep the original will and copies after the testator dies, even if you do not think there are any assets to probate at his or her death. This is critical! In the case of my client, her husband had died 20 years prior and she thought all assets were in joint tenancy at their death. It was only in refinancing some property that she discovered this was not the case.

If you have questions or concerns about lost wills or the proper care of original estate planning documents, consult with a qualified estate attorney.