Effective estate planning takes time and evolves over the various seasons of life.  Often, a family meeting is one of the final steps in the estate planning process.  There seems to be a trend among baby boomers to want to make sure there is transparency and understanding regarding their decisions so that when they pass away, their wishes are known and family conflict is minimized, if not avoided altogether.  A family meeting is very helpful when there is an uneven distribution of assets (actual or perceived), a blended family, a beneficiary with substance abuse or gambling issues, or when there have been gifts that have been made during lifetime.

Why a family meeting?

The purpose of a family meeting is to share relevant information with family members.  This will prevent surprises when you become incapacitated or pass away and obviate disagreements and discord.  Your professional advisors are often present so that your family can become comfortable working with them.  You can explain to everyone at the same time what guided your choices.

Who participates in a family meeting?

Who you invite depends upon your personal circumstances. Each family is different.  Often it is your adult children, siblings and on occasion, your close friends if you have no family. Leaving specific people, such as one particular child, out of the meeting can create even more issues than the family meeting is supposed to prevent. (If you’re not ready to invite everyone, it might not be time for the meeting!)  Things get trickier when you involve the spouses or significant others of the adult children.  Sometimes it is good to control the message and have the “in-laws” hear everything at the same time as the children.  This avoids potential misperception and the “whisper down the lane” effect if the child goes home and tells his/her spouse.

Invite the entire professional team — the attorney, financial advisor and accountant.  The professionals are able to explain legal or tax concepts and consequences easily and may also serve as a stabilizing influence if any members of the family are upset. It is often easier to have the meeting at the professional’s office; a more neutral territory.

What will be discussed?

Think it through and create an agenda.  Outline what you are going to discuss.  Don’t include an item on the agenda if you are not ready or willing to discuss it.  For example, if you know that several of your children want the vintage Corvette and you have not decided what to do with it, do not put the Corvette on the agenda.  You may, or may not, want to provide a detailed financial statement.  Stick to the agenda and set some ground rules.  You may choose to send out the agenda prior to the meeting, allowing everyone to prepare questions.

Topics that may be covered.

You may share who you have chosen (and why) as your agent under your Financial and Health Care Powers of Attorney.  The attorney could explain how the documents work and when they are used.  You may discuss your philosophy regarding end of life decisions, organ donation and your health care and/or facility preferences.

Your will, beneficiary designations, views on charitable giving, and the potential tax consequences for your beneficiaries are other topics for consideration.  If the executor that you have chosen does not want to serve, it is better to know that now.

If you have established a trust, a review of the trustee and beneficiary provisions is helpful.  Also, what is owned by the trust?  Too often we see trusts that have not been funded.

Where are your accounts located?  How are they titled?  Are there online user names and passwords?  A good first step is to have a spreadsheet with the name of each account, account holder(s), location of account, and the account number.  Is there a safe deposit box?   Where is the key?  What is in the safe deposit box?

Care needs.

As your health changes, caregivers or care managers may be needed.  Share your latest doctor’s report.  There are apps available to track and share health care and notes by children, such as CaringBridge.

If one of your children is providing care to you and you are paying that child, this is a good time to explain to your other children why you are doing so.  Or, you may be giving more to the child caregiver in your will, because they provided care to you during your lifetime.  Your out-of-state child may not understand this.

Cremation or funeral arrangements.

If you have prepaid burial or cremation arrangements made, share those with your family.  If you do not, discuss what your wishes are.

Effective estate planning is different for everyone, but it should be done to have your goals achieved.  As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Tammy A. Weber is a Certified Elder Law Attorney and the Managing Attorney of the law firm of Marshall, Parker & Weber, LLC with offices in Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre, Jersey Shore and Scranton. For more information visit www.paelderlaw.com or call 1-800-401-4552.

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