What do Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions and Valentine’s Day all have in common? Some of you are fortunate enough to look forward to and enjoy these lifetime events.
For the rest of us, however, who feel a pang of dread or nervousness, what do you suppose is at the root of your emotion?
If you ask this question to any psychologist, they’ll probably tell you that holidays, events, and family gatherings are all kindle that could ignite combustible situations into full-on emotional fires.
Our own memories recall crushed hopes for some; lifelong slights bubble to the surface in others.
There’s a certain expectation that comes with holidays and special events isn’t there? We envision a Norman Rockwell painting but sometimes end up with Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne-like catastrophes worthy of the strangest and most embarrassing reality television show episodes.
The unrealistic expectation is what does us in. We envision an unlikely picture rather than approach holidays and gatherings with a realistic expectation of what is likely to be. We fail to prepare ourselves to remember to take deep breaths and not overreact when the inevitable disappointment arises.
Hence the pain.
Expectations surrounding family finances and estate plans are no different. I can’t tell you the number of times that, prior to a catastrophic event such as a heart attack, stroke, or even death, Mom and Dad haven’t discussed their finances with their adult children beneficiaries, who often anticipate unrealistic inheritances.
Along those same lines, parents don’t want to be a “burden” to their children, but fail to discuss financial situations prior to needing nursing or assisted living care. If only everyone discussed the need prior to the crisis, appropriate legal and financial planning could have saved the family tens of thousands of dollars.
In our culture, discussing finances is taboo. Parents aren’t open to the discussion, usually for any number of reasons including pride, embarrassment, a desire to not be a financial burden, or to avoid entitled relatives from seeking handouts.
Not only do families avoid lifetime finance discussions, rarely will Mom and Dad reveal the contents of their estate plan ahead of time.
Perhaps they don’t want to have difficult conversations resulting from their decisions, such as naming a gatekeeper trustee on a spendthrift son’s inheritance or giving him less than his siblings because he enjoyed so much more in the form of lifetime gifts. Other times clients don’t wish to reveal their true net worth to their children. Yet in other situations Mom and Dad, with good reason, delay their adult children’s inheritance for a surviving spouse in a second marriage who is not the biological parent of the children.
Expectations also surround the roles that Mom and Dad assign. “I thought I was the logical choice to be the trustee to administer Mom’s affairs,” eldest son points out when he learns youngest sister has been named to fill that role.
Certainly, Mom and Dad have the absolute right to bequeath their hard-earned assets and money in ways and amounts that they see fit. Whenever a client directs me to draft a plan with what I perceive to be unusual provisions, I’ll ask for his thought process to document the file.
Most of the time the explanation justifies the direction.
When the bomb drops, however, especially when it’s only days after Mom died, which is itself an emotional time, I brace for the emotional fallout.
What’s the answer? One answer is to develop a lasting relationship with a qualified estate planning attorney who’s been through these types of situations dozens, if not hundreds of times. Practice does count here.
Rather than view your estate plan as a once-a-couple-decade transaction, instead develop a sense of its fluidity and continuity with your family, ever-changing finances and tax laws. Ask the emotional questions during the planning process. Determine how to best frame your plan amongst your loved ones to minimize unrealistic expectations.
A well thought-out estate plan is as much of an art as it is a science.
And enjoy that upcoming wedding, holiday or family reunion. Be mindful of your reactions and do your best to relish the presence of your loved ones. It’s rarely all Norman Rockwell, but it won’t be too bad if you have an America’s Funniest Home Video moment either.
© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.