Making Life Easier for Our Families & Honesty in Estate Planning

We often think of estate planning as a way to make things smoother for our loved ones after we’re gone. It’s about ensuring our assets are distributed according to our wishes, right? Well, not always. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, you can end up with more problems than you have solved. One of the biggest pitfalls? Being less than honest with adult children about how assets are divided among them. Let’s delve into why this can be a recipe for family discord and share a tale that brings this issue to light.

Picture this… a family gathering, filled with laughter, memories, and the comforting presence of loved ones. Amidst the joy, the topic of inheritance arises. The parents assure their children that everything will be divided equally among them. It’s a comforting thought, a way to maintain harmony even after they’re gone. However, as time passes and the parents age, whispers of unequal treatment begin to circulate.

In reality, the parents have made decisions about their estate that deviate from the promised equality. Perhaps one child received more financial support during their lifetime, or another has been earmarked to inherit a family business. Whatever the reasons, the truth remains hidden behind a facade of equality.

As the parents pass away and the contents of the will or trust are revealed, shockwaves ripple through the family. The children, expecting parity, are met with disparity. Resentment brews, suspicion festers, and harmony fractures. What was intended to make life easier for the children now becomes a source of bitterness and conflict.

But why does this happen? Why do parents choose to conceal the truth from their adult children, setting the stage for such discord?

One reason may be a desire to avoid confrontation or hurt feelings. Parents may fear that disclosing unequal distributions will lead to resentment or arguments among their children. However, the irony is that by hiding the truth, they often sow the seeds of exactly what they sought to prevent.

Another factor could be a sense of obligation or guilt. Parents may feel compelled to favor one child over another for various reasons, whether it’s financial support provided during their lifetime or perceived differences in need. While these motivations may be understandable, failing to communicate them openly only exacerbates the situation.

Sadly, many parents justify concealing the trust by convincing themselves that the distributions are in fact equal (e.g. I helped Evan out with more financially than Sophie; so I will leave Sophie more because that will be fair). But the problem here is that fairness does not mean equality to the kids. To be clear, parents should be able to give what they have to who they want in whatever amounts they desire. However, unless there is an explanation made to the kids as to why distributions are not equal (e.g. because one received more during the parents’ lifetime), parents should not assume that the kids will come to the conclusion.

Moreover, there’s the misconception that estate planning is solely about distributing assets. In reality, estate planning also about fostering understanding and transparency among family members. By keeping secrets or withholding information, parents undermine the very essence of what estate planning should achieve: clarity and harmony.

Now, let’s return to our earlier scenario and examine how things could have unfolded differently with honesty at the forefront.

Instead of promising equal inheritance without transparency, the parents engage their children in open conversations about their estate plan. They explain the rationale behind their decisions, acknowledging any disparities and addressing concerns head-on. While the discussions may be challenging, they pave the way for understanding and acceptance among the siblings.

When the time comes to execute the estate plan, there are no surprises. Each child knows where they stand and why. While emotions may still run high, there’s a foundation of honesty and communication that helps mitigate potential conflicts. Rather than feeling betrayed or suspicious, the children can mourn their parents’ passing and navigate the inheritance process with greater clarity and respect for each other.

In the end, the lesson is clear: honesty is the bedrock of effective estate planning. Concealing the truth may seem like a temporary solution, but it only postpones the inevitable reckoning. By embracing transparency and open communication, parents can lay the groundwork for a smoother transition of assets and, more importantly, preserve the bonds of family long after they’re gone.

So, let’s pledge to be forthright with our adult children about our estate plans. Let’s honor our desire to make things easier for them by being honest, even if it’s uncomfortable. After all, true peace of mind comes not from hiding the truth, but from facing it with courage and integrity.