The Importance of the Family Meeting in Your Estate Planning Process

By:  Nicole T. Livingston, J.D. – Associate Attorney –, 443-393-7696

Some clients are reluctant to share their planning with their family. You may feel the plan is private or needs to wait to be unveiled at the time of your death. Perhaps, you do not want to create tension if you chose one family member over another to act as your executor or power of attorney. Many may be uncomfortable bringing up the topic for fear of the reaction from family members. We have found by explaining your estate plan now and having regular meetings with your executor can prevent problems during the administration process. You can tackle difficult issues while you have an opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings. Waiting for the big reveal after your death can cause some families to break up and never speak to each other again.

A good way to start the discussion is to have a family meeting with your estate planning attorney and other advisors, such as your financial advisors and certified public accountant. At Elville and Associates, we encourage you to schedule this meeting with us. We can lead the discussion and bring up uncomfortable topics in a nonconfrontational style. Explaining how your plan works to your family members will allow them to understand why decisions were made and give them an opportunity to ask questions.

Start with a convenient time and location for family members to meet. Your attorney’s office is a good location because it conveys the seriousness of the discussion and allows for a clear beginning and end time. Allowing family members to participate and ask questions directly to the drafting attorney may clear up misperceptions they may have. This first step opens the door for more discussions in the future to be held in a less structured setting. During this meeting, no financial discussions of the size of your estate or specific values of your assets needs to be discussed. Instead, the meeting can explain the documents you have prepared and what the family can expect upon your death or if you become disabled.

Initially, there may be anxiety associated with the meeting due to sensitive issues that may be discussed. Planning involving a blended family or a beneficiary who may not be financially responsible to control the inheritance that you leave to him or her can be challenging. If trusts are involved, your attorney can explain why and how they are being used. Your values in creating the plan the way you did can be explained and understood by your family while you are living. No one wants to leave a mess behind and opening this discussion during a family meeting is a good first step to take to leave behind a legacy rather than a lawsuit.

You need to discuss with your health care agent your decisions for end of life care. During the estate planning process, you signed an Advance Medical Directive. The family meeting is an opportunity to discuss the decisions you made. If you allowed your agent to have flexibility, then explain what you intended this to mean. For example, you may have requested a feeding tube if you are unable to take enough nourishment by mouth. You can discuss with your agent for how long this may last. If the decision is made for you to enter hospice, let your agent know it is okay to discontinue the feeding tube. At some point, with a persistent vegetative state, a feeding tube may be prolonging your life with extraordinary medical bills. This may not be what you intended. You may have wanted a feeding tube for comfort and now it is a burden. It is difficult to document all the variables in a health care situation which is why it is important to have a discussion now about your health care.

Writing a statement about your goals and values and what is especially important to you during the last part of your life can alleviate stress and anxiety family members experience when trying to make final decisions regarding your life. You can locate this paragraph in Part II: Treatment Preferences (“Living Will”).

Part III of your Advance Medical Directive allows you to state your wishes regarding your funeral and burial arrangements. You may have decided who should make decisions about the disposition of your body, but you may not have discussed with them what you desire. Some funerals involve many decisions that are like planning a wedding; however, the time frame is much shorter – often having to plan everything within a week or two. The decision of burial or cremation is only the beginning. Your agent may have to locate a church and decide on a ceremony. Or you may desire a memorial service with no religious affiliation. Decisions regarding gospel verses or specific bible readings and who will read them, songs and whether you want a choir or a specific soloist, and the type of church ceremony or memorial service and whether a casket or urn is present will all have to be decided quickly. After that a location for a repast might be required which involves food and beverage selections. Notifying friends and family may be challenging to handle alone and often involves coordination of travel and lodging arrangements. Decisions about flowers or donations in lieu of flowers to a specific charity can be challenging if family members do not agree. Often the task of writing an obituary falls on your agent. It can be contentious if family members all want to have input. You can alleviate some of this burden by discussing your wishes now.

One final thought – your agent needs to have access to these documents. Whether you join DocuBank to store your documents or you use a home safe, you need to inform your agent where the original documents are located and how to access the safe if you are placing your documents in one. Providing your agent with copies now is also a prudent decision. After signing your estate planning documents, you have some work to do to make sure that your wishes are properly followed. We feel a family meeting is the best first step to accomplish this task.

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