Ben Neiburger, J.D., C.P.A
It can be tough to relate to the estate battles of celebrities like Prince, B.B. King or Alan Thicke. They earned millions over their lifetimes; most of us are lucky to have anything left in the bank after paying our holiday credit card bills.
But in one way, these celebrities are “Just Like Us!” Many make avoidable estate planning mistakes that lead to big fights between family members over their stuff.
These arguments can be especially bitter when people leave more to some family members than others. The reasons for structuring estate plans this way vary: One of your kids may have special needs you want to cover after you’re gone, while another may be estranged (or notoriously bad with money).
While you get the final say over how to distribute your earthly possessions, think about your loved ones reading your trust, will or other estate planning documents after you’re gone. Are there any shockers in there? Will they cause disappointment, resentment or fighting in your family? If you’re not planning to divide your assets equally, this subject can get extra touchy. Some might think they’re receiving unfair treatment, potentially leading to court battles and even ending family relationships.
Creating an estate plan that all your family members can live with is possible – with some finesse.
Here’s our guide to crafting a plan that treats grown children or family members differently:
- Make your decision with confidence. The biggest step is deciding to go this route in the first place. The equal-split philosophy of estate planning is a long-standing tradition that many planners are urging clients to reconsider, as blended families and other special situations become common. You know what’s best for your family, so don’t be afraid to spell it out.
- Break the news. By telling your family members about your plans before it’s too late, you can make your wishes clear and help them understand why you’ve taken this approach. This can help your kids or other family members get more comfortable with the arrangement, heading off lawyer’s-office battles down the road. That includes plans for sentimental items – if you want your oldest daughter to have your pearl earrings, put it in writing now.
- Get outside help. Second marriages, financially dependent children and family members with special needs can create simmering conflicts just waiting to turn into full-blown fights. If you think your own family could use an impartial witness, consider bringing on an outside executor or trustee for your estate. It doesn’t have to be wildly expensive – and it can save money and heartache in the end. Ask your lawyer to help you get started.
When it comes to your stuff, you get to decide who gets what – and being clear about your wishes can help you make sure those wishes are met.