Handling the 'estate meeting'

As families come together during the holiday season, you have an opportunity for the too-easily-avoided 'estate meeting.'

Illustration / Guillermo Munro / Dallas Morning News / Newscom / File
It's never easy to figure out how to divide up the estate of a loved one, but if you have the important discussions while they're still alive, giving everyone a chance to weigh in, it can smooth conversations later on.

Sometime during this week, I’m planning on sitting down with my siblings and my parents and hashing out the specific details of their estate – who will be the executor, how it will be split up, and so on.

My parents don’t have a large estate, but they do have a number of personal items that different individuals are going to want. Some of these items have significant value. I am almost sure that there are going to be some hurt feelings by the end of this meeting and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the discussion was quietly postponed.

But not by me.

Having watched this process begin to unfold – and having watched similar processes unfold with other families that I care deeply about – and coupling that experience with a lot of personal finance reading, I’ve come to a number of conclusions about this process that I thought I would share with you today. Perhaps, during the coming week, this will give you food for thought as you meet with your family.

Don’t put it off. Don’t. This is going to be a difficult discussion for many families, and it’s often tempting to postpone the discussion so that the day can be pleasant instead of challenging. Don’t. Every time you postpone, you put your estate at risk of being handled by the court system instead of according to your wishes. Not only that, you’re allowing the concerns of others in your family to go unresolved, too. Don’t let the problem just sit there – solve it, together.

Don’t exclude anyone. Everyone who has a stake in the situation should be involved in or at least aware of the decisions involved. This can be quite difficult, but the ramifications of not doing it are worse. By excluding some, you’re ensuring infighting, mistrust, and anger among those involved. While doing it face-to-face is not a perfect antidote, it at least can minimize the problems that can arise.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to talk about this beforehand with the people you care for the most – and trust the most. Let these people be your advisors and help you to come up with a plan for your estate. Yes, some of them may have a stake in it, but if you’re concerned about them giving you false ideas out of a desire for a bigger chunk of your estate, are they really worth bequeathing things to? Seek trusted people while you’re hashing out your ideas.

The relationships post-estate have value. One big factor that many people don’t consider during this process is the state of relationships after the estate is resolved. Will siblings and other family members be able to get along, or will they not be on speaking terms and only see each other in court? Will they embrace each other and help each other after the funeral, or will they be mourning not only you but the loss of their relationships with their siblings?

Your estate doesn’t just contain financial assets. It also contains a great deal of impact on the feelings and relationships of those left behind. Those have significant value – in my eyes, in many situations, the value of those feelings and relationships are more valuable than the items left behind.

If someone makes an unusual offer or claim, get it in writing or ignore it. These situations can be emotionally charged and people might make statements along the lines of, “I want no part in this.” If you hear things like that, wait for the emotions to cool, then ask them to state their wishes in writing so that it’s recorded and clear for everyone. If they won’t give that to you, then it’s clear that their statement was merely blowing off steam and should be disregarded. If you insist on emotional responses being binding, you’re doing nothing but damaging long-term relationships.

This is the estate holder’s property; they can do with it what they choose. If you’re involved with such a process, recognize that the person or people making the decisions about the estate are human beings. Just like you, they have lots of feelings about lots of different things. They are close to some people and not as close to others. They have human failings, just like you do. What they choose to do with their estate is their decision and it’s based on all of these factors. If you’re angry about the decision, remember that in the end it’s their decision – no one else is responsible for it. Don’t let jealousy of what someone else is getting cloud your vision of the situation. Most of the time, it’s due to either the flaws of the estate maker or due to a lot of time and care shown by the person getting more that you could have done – but you made a different choice.

(At this point, it might be clear to reader that I’ve seen some very messy estate situations.)

Do it correctly. Once the plan is in place, do it correctly. Have the will or trust properly executed and notarized and leave the documents with a trusted individual, such as a family lawyer. Make sure that it’s binding and that there won’t be questions after the estate holder passes on.

The big thing is to keep the process as open as possible. If you set things in stone or make changes, make those actions clear to everyone involved who may be impacted by the choice. This will offer the best route to long-term family peace.

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