Many of our efforts at improving our financial health are for the benefit of our families. We have a vision of how to protect them. And, we may have family members that need additional help or protection. But, as much as we may be thinking about it, it is rare that families broach these topics and discuss them. Those discussions can be very important. They let the family know what to expect and what is important for you. Other family members may share important considerations of their own too. The discussions can be very useful and may eliminate any surprises or unmet expectations when your estate passes on. Even with an active family discussion, it is important that you establish appropriate documentation to protect your estate and carry out your wishes.
People are generally living longer. Not only are they living longer, many are experiencing greater health care costs and needs, which can take a significant bite out of an estate. This only makes it more important that those around you understand your wishes and needs surrounding your care and your estate’s ability to financially meet your needs. Currently over 40 million Americans are age 65 and over; about 13% of the population.1This is the highest amount in history, but it is growing rapidly. By the year 2050, it is estimated that 20% of the population will be age 65 and over.2 This is not an isolated issue! We all should consider planning for this part of our lives.
It is important to consult with a trusted professional in establishing and executing appropriate estate documents. Should you not have these things in place, your estate can go into probate, which can be expensive and time consuming. The process varies by state, but it can last 2 years or more and can cost the estate 5% or more in legal fees.
Talk with Family Members
One of the most important things is to start the conversation about your assets, investments, estate and health plans with your family members. You should remember that it can be difficult for all involved to talk about mortality and possible health declines. It may be difficult for you, but it also may be difficult for your family to hear that you are considering your mortality too. This is a step that families often overlook, but it can make both the aging process and the inheritance process smoother by clearly explaining your wishes. You may need to agree to disagree.
There are a number of areas that you should talk about. These may include the following:
- Estate plans. Explain what plans have been put into place. Point out why certain organizations have been included and what their significance is to you. This is also the time to discuss why you have chosen an executor or why you have made distributions in a particular way.
- Financial Plan. Are your current sources of income and assets able to meet your needs and desires? How are your investments being managed to meet your goals?
- Home. Are you planning to stay in your current home or do you anticipate changing residences? If you need to make a change, what are you hoping for in terms of location and amenities?
- Financial Impact of Health Issues. It is important to review what plans are in place surrounding your health care. Do you have insurance? How will decisions be made? Do you plan to use the estate to support your health needs? This is important as the rise in health care costs may have a significant impact on the total value of the estate. The family needs to be prepared for such an eventuality.
- Contact information for your financial advisor, CPA and estate attorney. It is important that your family has the ability to reach these advisors should they need to contact them for you.
Your Financial Advisor
You may need some leverage in holding these discussions. If you have already hired a financial advisor, they may be able to help you facilitate the process. This may mean that well ahead of aging considerations, you have met as a family with your financial advisor so that everyone understands your goals and financial decisions. It may also be an opportunity for children to improve their financial knowledge and to get a good start at saving, investing and financial goal setting for themselves.
You are ultimately the decision maker for your financial plan and for your estate plan. Your advisor should recognize this. It may be really helpful if your advisor is included in the overall process and there to leverage some of the conversations with your family.
It is very important that your estate documentation reflects your wishes. Estates can get complicated very quickly and in the era of blended families (ex-spouses, children and stepchildren, etc.), it can be critical that you clearly plan for who will inherit and how the estate will be passed on and divided. It is wise to not leave this to chance.
When you talk to your family it is important to let them know if you are leaving money to a charity and to explain to them what the charity means to you. It is also critical that you let them know about discrepancies. Maybe you are leaving real estate to one child because of their geographic proximity (or other reason). Maybe you have a child with an ongoing medical need and you want to provide resources for them to have care. Or you may have given a loan to a child and want to even things out through your estate. If you don’t take the opportunity to explain your reasoning, your children may never understand. And, they might spend a lifetime wondering about the differences. During these discussions, adult children may have opinions. It is certainly an opportunity for them to express themselves, but at the end of the day the estate decision is yours.
This is the kind of discussion that is easy to postpone! But, it is important that you have this conversation before there is any kind of health problem that leads to a mental or physical decline. Ultimately, this is your decision. And, a good advisor or attorney will meet with you privately to insure that the decisions are those that you want to make. Common grounds for contesting wills and trusts include undue influence and mental capacity.
It is important that you are very clear about your wishes with your advisors. Undue influence can come into play when someone is favored in the estate and they exerted influence to receive that favoritism. So, the sooner these documents are in place, the better. And, the sooner the family discussion occurs, the better. Both help to protect against contests over your estate documents.
Also, remember that this discussion is not all about financial wealth. There may be items of deep sentimental attachment for family members. This is a great time to understand the influence of those items and make provision for them. You may have no idea how important one of the family paintings is to someone and this discussion can give them an opportunity to let you know.
You may think that with your estate plan and family estate discussion all taken care of, that everything is set. But, it is very important that your beneficiary forms reflect your wishes. In fact it is critical. The beneficiary form is what the provider will rely upon in distributing your assets. They often do not refer to your estate documentation. Beneficiary forms exist for insurance, corporate and government retirement plans and personal (IRA) retirement plan savings. You may have filled out a beneficiary form many years ago before a 2nd or 3rd child was born. Or, you may have divorced and not updated your forms. It is wise to review these on a regular basis and to make sure that they reflect your wishes. They cannot be easily contested, so having them properly filled out is vital.
This is also a great time to review your insurance protection. And it may be an opportunity to review your insurance policies to make sure that they are held in tax-advantageous ways. This is also a great time to let your family know where the insurance policies are held so that they can claim appropriately. If a claim is not made, the insurance may not be paid to them.
It is an important step to have the documentation in place, but it is a very helpful step to have the discussion with your family. While many people hesitate to have these conversations, it is a great practice and may help you have fewer worries regarding your legacy. It may help eliminate possible confusion about your intent and your wishes. And, you may learn some things about your family’s hopes and expectations too.