Communication: Keep Your Family in the Loop

Communication: Keep Your Family in the Loop

By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
February 26, 2015

While planning for arrangements after your death may be difficult for you, the idea of your mortality may be even more upsetting and stressful for your loved ones. It’s not easy to think about what will happen after we die or become incapacitated, so it’s unsurprising that many families never discuss it at all.

Unfortunately, this can be a huge mistake. If you keep your family in the dark in terms of your estate planning arrangements, you can be certain this will cause a lot of stress, uncertainty, and confusion; feelings may be hurt and conflicts will arise.

By making your after-death expectations clear to your family and loved ones, you can help your heirs avoid a great deal of discord and litigation after you’ve passed. Because even if you have an exceptional estate plan in place, it’s uncertain whether your wishes will be able to be carried out smoothly and successfully if your family is unaware of its existence or basic terms.

For instance, what happens if you presume one of your heirs will be able to care for an asset or act as a trustee, when in reality this person is uncomfortable with this responsibility?  This lack of communication caused a lot of problems for the Lopez family.

An Unprepared Heir

Edna Lopez loved her horses nearly as much as she loved her four children. She had dedicated the later part of her life to caring for her seven beloved stallions, investing in farmland several miles outside of Davie, Florida, where she had a luxurious stable built for them. She loved riding, grooming, and caring for her beautiful horses—and she assumed her children did too. Her eldest son, Mathew, especially took a shine to riding the horses, and rode them nearly every day before he left for college.

That’s why Edna decided to leave all seven of her horses, their stable, and her farmland to Mathew, never questioning her certainty that he’d be thrilled with the gift. Sure, he had moved away from Davie to the big city of Miami to follow his wife, but she was sure he’d be happy to have an excuse to come back to his hometown, buy a house, and get to ride the horses every day again. It would be a wonderful environment to raise his children.

Edna passed away at the ripe old age of 81—just in time to see her oldest grandchild turn 8. Mathew was sad to say goodbye to his mother, but happy she had led a full life. It was with a heavy, but proud heart that he and his siblings visited his mother’s attorney to hear her last will and testament.

Edna had instructed that her assets be divided equally among her children, but put the farmland and horses in Mathew’s care. Mathew was surprised, and a little unsettled to learn he was now charged with the care of his mother’s farmland and horses. Though he hadn’t mentioned it to his family yet, he had been planning to relocate to Europe for his job. It’d be difficult to maintain the property while living in Davie, and there was no way he’d be able to properly maintain and care for everything while living in Europe.

When Mathew expressed his concern to his siblings, they all felt the same—none of them were up to the task of caring for the horses, either. After all, they had established jobs and families to care for, and none of them were eager to take on the responsibility of running a stable on the outskirts of Davie.

Mathew had to sell the property, and quickly, since he only had a few months before his departure. He ended up selling it to a rancher for substantially less than the property was worth. The rancher was less interested in the horses as he was in the land, and eventually sold them off for a profit. After a few years, he sold the land to a real estate company to use to build condominiums.

Whenever Mathew visited his siblings in Davie, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt when he rode past the condominiums and thought of his mother and her beloved horses.

Estate Planning Conversations Are Critical

For the Lopez family, a lack of clear communication resulted in a loss of both personal and financial benefits. Not only were Edna’s last wishes unable to be properly honored, her children were denied the full value of her precious gift.

Had Edna discussed her estate plan with her children, she would have learned that Mathew was not comfortable with taking on the care of the horses and stables. She could have taken steps to find another trusted beneficiary—someone who would have loved and cared for the horses as much as she did.

When you create an estate plan, you’ll want to be sure of your beneficiary’s understanding of your intentions and comfort level of taking on the task. Otherwise, this insufficiency in communication could result in confusion and conflict, and greatly reduce the amount they receive.

There are many important estate planning pieces to discuss—from the terms of your will to burial arrangements to the location of your documents and safe deposit boxes. For help approaching this complex, often sensitive area, it’s a good idea to bring in a professional as a neutral third party. Consider consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can guide you and your family through this important conversation together.

Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Haimo Law