By Bernard A. Krooks, Certified Elder Law Attorney
Congratulations! By completing your estate planning documents, you have taken a very important step towards ensuring that your wishes are carried out in the event you are incapacitated and that your property goes to your chosen beneficiaries at your death. You took our advice: we counseled you to have a durable power of attorney, a health care proxy, a living will, a last will and testament and perhaps even a trust. You even made sure that your trust was properly funded. So, what else is there for you to do to really make your estate planning complete? Well, how about telling your family about your estate plan?
For many, including their family in the estate planning process seems quite natural. For others, it can make them feel uncomfortable. After all, talking about what will happen to me if I get sick or die and who will be in charge of my affairs can raise some thorny family issues. So, what’s the right thing to do?
First, let’s be clear, there is no requirement that you tell your family members about what you have done. Conversely, there is no law that says you can’t tell them. Here are some pros and cons of each side of the discussion. The final decision, of course, is up to you.
My decisions as to who will inherit my estate when I pass away are very personal decisions. Also, I may change my mind at some point in the future. How I dispose of my property is entirely up to me and I don’t want people’s behavior towards me to change as a result of them knowing what is in my will. I also don’t want to hear them complain about what I did or try to get me to change things. These are my choices; not theirs. It might also cause a lot of family friction; especially if some feel that they are being treated unfairly in my will.
Sometimes, it’s not even about the money. If you choose one child to be your executor because you feel she is better suited for the job that may hurt the feelings of your other children who may feel slighted. Or, perhaps you have selected a corporate trustee or bank to serve as your fiduciary. While this may be a wise choice for you, it can certainly get others upset, especially if they think they should have been chosen for this job.
Putting aside the will for a moment, whenever you try to talk to your family about who should make health care or end-of-life issues, they always say “stop talking like that mom, nothing’s going to happen to you!”
Telling your family about your estate plan before something happens to you can sometimes make all the difference in the world in your wishes being carried out. Let’s say, for example, that you have selected your daughter to make health care decisions for you and that it is your desire to let nature take its course if you are ever hooked up to a ventilator or are on life support machines. In other words, you don’t want the doctors to take extraordinary measures to keep you alive if your quality of life would not be what you want. You explain this to your daughter and her reply is that she could never ask the doctors to “pull the plug.” You might want to reconsider who to appoint as your health care agent.
What if you have decided to leave your beautiful vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard to your son and it turns out that he has no desire to go there after you are gone? Wouldn’t you want to know that in advance?
If you do decide to share your estate plan with your family, it is probably a wise idea to tell everyone at once by having a family meeting. This way, all involved hear your plans at the same time and have the opportunity to voice any objections. This could help reduce the chances of a will contest after you die.
Bernard A. Krooks, Esq., is a founding partner of Littman Krooks LLP and has been honored as one of the “Best Lawyers” in America for each of the last seven years. He is past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) and past President of the New York Chapter of NAELA. Mr. Krooks has also served as chair of the Elder Law Section of the New York State Bar Association. He has been selected as a “New York Super Lawyer” since 2006. 914-684-2100 and www.elderlawnewyork.com.