By: Olivia R. Holcombe-Volke – Partner and Senior Estate Planning Attorney – Elville and Associates, P.C.
Many clients ask “how will my son/daughter/sister/cousin/friend [i.e., people designated to carry out the estate plan] KNOW what the documents say or how they work?” This question highlights a very important point, which is that an estate plan is only as effective as there is knowledge of its existence and function. If none of the people designated to carry out certain roles are aware that they have been so designated, nor aware of the location of the documents, nor the logistics of acting under the documents and what they are and are not allowed and expected to do, nor the client’s intentions and preferences and goals and concerns, nor any of the professionals involved with the client’s health, the financial, and legal world and wellbeing – then the estate planning documents that were so carefully thought through, the money that was so preciously spent to create them, and the protections that were intended to result from doing so, may all be for naught. An effective estate plan is one that does not exist in a vacuum.
What is the solution? The answer to this question is to have what is often referred to as “the family meeting,” though this is a bit of a misnomer, as its purpose is primarily to bring the named health, financial, and estate agents (those persons named to carry out certain roles) into the loop. Often these named agents are family members, but the point of the so called “family meeting” is to include the people who have been designated to act in certain capacities, whatever their relationship to the client may be, in the estate planning process, so that they have the opportunity to be made aware of their designation to act in certain capacities, at certain times, and what that all means.
The family meeting may also be useful for the purpose of introducing the beneficiaries of the estate plan to the plan and the intentions behind it. This may or may not be appropriate in all situations – not every client wishes their intended beneficiaries to know that they have been named as beneficiaries in the estate plan, as the client may wish to change that plan in the future, and does not wish to cause upset or conflict as a result. And, this in no way means sharing any of the specifics of the size or amount of assets involved, unless that is information that the client desires to share.
The attorneys of Elville and Associates offer and encourage clients to include a family meeting as part of the estate planning process. The additional benefit of doing so with the estate planning attorney’s participation is that it allows the named agents, beneficiaries, and family members to put a face to a name, and to know that there is a professional involved who can assist with the activation and administration of any of the necessary estate planning documents, if and when the time for such activation and administration arrives.
The first step in any successful estate plan is to create the plan. The second and equally vital step is to implement the plan, which includes notifying the involved parties of the existence of the plan, and their respective roles in it.