One of the many challenges my wife and I face as parents is simply trying to keep the peace between our children. Our six-year-old son and five-year-old daughter can be the best of friends … and the worst of enemies (often alternating between the two multiple times within the span of just a few minutes).
That’s all part of raising small children, but unfortunately, I see this same scenario play out time after time between adult siblings when a messy estate causes family rifts. And it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, if handled properly, your estate plan should help bring your children together rather than tear them apart. Here are 10 tips to help prevent your children from fighting over your estate:
- Talk to children about your estate plan. It may be a difficult discussion to have, but you need to have it. If you find it too difficult, enlist the help of your estate planning attorney to go over the details of your estate plan with your children and answer their questions. In fact, because this is so important I include just such a “family meeting” in every estate plan I put together for my clients.
- Write your children a letter. If you can’t face a face-to-face discussion (or even if you can), put it in writing with as much detail as you are comfortable providing to your children. You can frame the discussion in general terms and ask for their input. This is a great way to get them invested in ensuring your plan works the way you want it to.
- Email your children your estate plan summary. Your estate planning attorney will usually provide you with a summary of your estate plan that doesn’t disclose details or actual dollar amounts. Ask your estate planning attorney to copy your children on an email with the summary and ask for their input.
- For complex estates, consider a mediator. If you have a complicated estate that may include valuable collections or a family business, ask your attorney about bringing in a professional mediator who can meet with you and your children separately to identify any potential issues and then meet with you together to iron out those issues.
- Use equal treatment. If possible, leave your children an equal inheritance; most family fights result from children being treated unequally.
- If you establish a trust for children, name each child as a co-trustee of their own trust at a certain age. Choose a reasonable age for when you feel a child will be able to participate in managing their own trust so they can learn about handling an inheritance with the guidance of the main trustee.
- Consider staggered distributions from a trust. To help a child learn how to manage a substantial inheritance, estate planning experts often advise staggering distributions over a period of time (i.e., age 25, 30, etc.).
- Provide children with an option to remove or replace the main trustee. Similar to arranged marriages, you never know if children and trustees will make a go of the relationship. Give children limited power to remove and replace a trustee with a different, qualified trustee.
- Allow children to name their own co-trustee. If your children are competent adults, give them the power to name the independent co-trustee of their trust.
- Include mediation instructions in your estate plan. Your estate planning attorney can add mediation language so that if a dispute arises, your children will not be tied up in emotionally and financially draining litigation.
If you’d like to ensure your estate plan doesn’t lead to a family feud, I’d be happy to sit down with you and help identify the best strategies to provide for and protect the financial security and family harmony of your loved ones.