At our law firm, we’ve identified a common thread among families with the most successful generational transitions. They share one thing: family meetings.
It takes more than just determining “who gets what” to ensure that your (the trustmaker’s) preferences are carried out during the estate planning process. Therefore, a family meeting is a crucial—though sometimes overlooked—stage of estate preparation.
These meetings are often held at the very end of the initial phase of estate planning or sometimes annually thereafter. Their primary purpose is to tell your loved ones about your estate. This can help to avoid unpleasant surprises in the event of your incapacity or death and pave the way for keeping family members on good terms.
What is discussed at family meetings?
Agendas can range from very broad to quite specific, depending on factors like client priorities, family dynamics, and where you are in the estate planning process.
You can also use family meetings to discuss the following:
- Connection: You may wish to discuss expectations for maintaining familial ties, including keeping in touch, looking after one another, and similar objectives.
- Family values: Your final desires are influenced by your personal values and ethics.
- Religious and spiritual preferences: This is a chance to share values and wishes with the family from the standpoint of religious or spiritual beliefs (both yours and theirs).
- Medical diagnoses: Some families prefer to disclose medical situations that will inevitably influence the estate plans they prepare, whether for incapacity or end-of-life issues.
- Final arrangements: Most clients have a clear vision of what they want, whether it’s a modest cremation or a lavish ceremony.
No matter what you discuss, though, your family meeting should allow you to:
- Deliver decision-making updates to all recipients
- Establish you are of sound mind while making decisions and avoid surprises regarding wealth distribution duties and responsibilities for family members
- Clearly communicate your direction choices
- Resolve any conflicts that may arise
What if my family members choose to avoid one another?
Some clients may prefer to skip a family gathering for various reasons, such as:
- Worry that it will be weird or uncomfortable
- Concern for the feelings of the beneficiaries
- Desire to keep the information private
- A preference for letting beneficiaries find out after the trustor’s death
Naturally, each client must consider their own situation and decide whether or not a family meeting is the right course of action. A grieving family, however, doesn’t need a dispute (or, worse, litigation). Unfortunately, this is often the case if unforeseen circumstances arise during the distribution of an estate. It’s a common trope on television and in movies for a reason.
A more strategic course of action for beneficiaries is ordinarily to have a family meeting where the client can be in charge, convey final desires, and explicitly address any concerns.
Who should I include in a family meeting?
Your guest list may depend on your family, who will be affected, and the level of involvement you’d like to see. However, it’s important to include the following in your family meeting:
- A leader: It helps to have a neutral third party in charge of the meeting if disagreements arise, which is why many clients ask their attorneys to oversee the meeting. It can also be helpful for the client’s loved ones to get to know the representing attorney before they carry out the client’s last wishes.
- Your beneficiaries and trustees: Each individual, taking into account their own circumstances, is the best judge of who to invite. Beneficiaries often include adult children or siblings, or even close friends or other chosen recipients. If you have children, you could invite their spouse’s close relatives. In general, it’s a good idea to include everybody who will have a hand in helping you achieve your objectives.
- Professionals: If you’re dealing with strained relationships, interfamily strife, or conflict, you may include one or more heavy hitters, such as a mediator, family counselor, coach, succession experts, and/or individual legal counsel for specific family members.
We treat high-conflict meetings more as pre-suit mediation (similar to those in lawsuits). In these sessions, clients and professionals help hash out the issues to address with the goal of resolution and catharsis. We offer these types of meetings to select clients who are subject to separate representation agreements.
When should I hold a family meeting?
Don’t wait until you’re incapacitated or on your deathbed to have a family meeting. Nor is it recommended to hold one meeting and never do it again. That being said, circumstances vary significantly between families.
For instance, you might convene a family meeting soon after preparing a living trust and will, and again when there are changes in circumstances (second marriages, altered relationships, altered financial portfolios, etc.).
What legal points should be covered?
We’ve mentioned the basics, such as final arrangements and family values. But there are some more specific and potentially more challenging topics you should consider covering at a family meeting to prevent problems down the line, such as:
- Plan structure: You may want to get into the legal nitty-gritty of an estate plan, as outlined by the estate planning attorney.
- Cast of characters: This might mean trustee/executor designations and/or who is included in the will. By explaining the reasoning behind your choices, you might lessen the likelihood that your heirs will hold a grudge against you, the trustee, or the executor.
- Special assets and heirlooms: This is especially crucial for estates with a wide variety of assets, including those located in multiple countries or states, under multiple business names, or that have recently been sold or will be in the near future.
- Property division: Many planners find it helpful to talk about distributions (to spouses, children, charities, etc.) to make their desires clear and answer questions.
- Requests: Under this heading, clients can make requests regarding sentimental items or anything else that fits within their budget.
- Changes just before dying: You can adjust plans (particularly for the division of assets) once a family gets together because a living will may be changed at any time.
- Directives: If the client is asleep or too unwell to talk, this delicate topic is generally best communicated by an attorney.
We know these issues don’t feel like the starting point for a heartwarming family gathering, but addressing them now could prevent unnecessary conflict later on during a challenging time. You can feel certain you did your best to communicate with your loved ones, and they will likely feel they were heard and taken into account—and that’s a successful planning outcome.
Attain peace of mind and resolution with an early or annual family meeting
If you want to start your estate preparation planning process off the right way, contact Shann Chaudhry Esq., Attorney at Law PLLC, to book your consultation.