The Great Estate Debate

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It's a fact. Well over half of American adults don't have an estate plan or even a simple will. If you already have a will, congratulations! You have created a plan to help provide peace of mind for your family. But are you planning to leave a greater portion of your estate to one adult child than to the rest? Or maybe you have decided to leave a large percentage of your estate to a church ministry rather than entirely to your family and friends. This is a delicate and emotional issue for most families. Having worked with families going through the probate process, I have observed that equal inheritances do help maintain family harmony when you're gone. On the other hand, an estate plan with an unequal division can set the field for a future battle royal.

In spite of the pitfalls, sometimes parents believe that there are good reasons to differentiate in distributing their estate. A good indicator of whether or not an unequal division will cause conflict among your children when you are gone will be whether your children also recognize and understand your reasons and can be supportive of them. Situations involving a special‐needs child, for example, can necessitate that the bulk of one's estate be dedicated to their continued care and support. Siblings will generally recognize your moral obligation, as well as the practical reality that, in the absence of a parent, the care of their special‐needs sibling may well fall to them, so an unequal inheritance from your estate may actually relieve them of a future financial burden.

Usually, though, the motivation behind a desire to have an unequal estate distribution is less
obvious. In these situations, the success of an uneven estate distribution strategy will depend almost entirely on the family dynamics before the death of the parents. While a healthy supportive family will work through any feelings of jealousy or resentment, there are many more families in which even small discrepancies in an inheritance could be the blow that drives them permanently apart. For example, maybe your reason to want to leave unequal shares is to take into account the relative success of your various children. One might be a business executive who makes a lot of money, while another is a social worker who makes much less. It may seem to make sense to leave the social worker more of your estate. But none of us can see into the future.

The financially successful child might lose the business or come down with a chronic illness. Or they
might feel that you have penalized them for their success. However, if you have a conversation with them you may find that the well‐off child will agree completely with your reasons for wanting to
reduce their inheritance in order to give their struggling sibling more. Consider sharing this information with your children individually, rather than announcing it at a family get together.
However, even sharing it with your children as a group is far preferable to letting them find out about it when your will is read after you are gone.

There are also situations in which parents have already helped one child financially much more than
the others. This can be a particular issue in our current time of recession, when many of our
children have struggled with unemployment or have lost homes in foreclosure. You may decide that
this prior support is simply water under the bridge and divide your estate equally anyway. Or you might keep track of your gifts, especially if they are large ones, such as help to save a home from loss, and reduce that child's inheritance by the same amount. One of the most challenging situations in this area occurs when one of your children helps to take care of you in time of
illness or disability. If you decide to leave that child more in your will, his or her siblings might suspect that they took advantage of their ailing parent and maybe even used undue
influence in order to leverage a greater share of the estate.

This very situation has led to many estate contests in our courts where often the only real winners are the lawyers for each of the warring siblings. You avoid these conflicts altogether by paying the child for their care services or by giving them monetary gifts while you're alive and then split
the remainder of your estate equally. Real estate can create particularly difficult problems.

Say you have a mountain cabin which one child loves and the other lives too far away to really enjoy
it. Since leaving it to both equally would likely stir up trouble when it came to splitting the financial
upkeep expenses for the property, you should ask your children what they think about sharing and paying those expenses. The best solution might just be to sell the house now and add the proceeds to your retirement funds.

One of the greatest mistakes I have seen in estate planning comes when children have either not been made aware of their parents' intentions or been invited to participate in the decision‐making
process. I believe that the biggest reason for not discussing estate plans with our family members is often simple fear. We may be afraid that our children will disapprove of our plans, will depend on an inheritance, or will be resentful of other siblings and heirs. So here are some straightforward suggestions that might help to ease the awkwardness of the situation.

Start by explaining your values. Presumably your estate plan is going to reflect your values when it comes to money, giving, and providing for your family. The more openly you are able to communicate those values during your lifetime, the more your family members will know what to expect from your estate when you are gone. For example, if your children know that you strongly support the mission of your congregation, they won't be surprised to find that a donation for the congregation is included in your will. Once they understand your values, explaining how you intend to leave your estate will be much easier. However, if you can't bring yourself to talk about your estate plans with your family, one alternative is to leave a letter with your will that explains the reasons for your decision. If the tone of your letter is compassionate and addresses the questions and even the resentments and disappointments that your children may have it will go a long way toward fulfilling the goal of preserving these precious family relationships.

Parents who say nothing may inadvertently create a time bomb that will explode when they are not around to diffuse it. This not only can tarnish the memories your family will have of you, but a
challenge to the will may significantly deplete your estate through legal fees and costs, and your intentions for a gift to support ministry may be thwarted.

Whatever you decide about inheritance, remember that the future of your family's harmony is at stake and whenever possible equal shares do the trick.

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