Should You Share Your Estate Planning Decisions With Your Children?

GenerationsFamilyYou have just finished signing your new estate planning documents. Should you inform your children about your decisions, or better yet, give them copies of your documents?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and lots of good reasons in favor of keeping many of your decisions private. However, in my experience, some level of information sharing can be worthwhile.

For example, your documents may have named some of your children as primary or successor fiduciary—e.g., personal representative under your will, trustee under your trust, attorney-in-fact under your durable power of attorney or health care agent under your health care proxy. The individuals named as fiduciary under your health care proxy will know about your choices because they typically are required to sign the Proxy accepting appointment as primary or successor health care agent, but there is no requirement that your children sign or receive copies of any of your other estate planning documents. Does it nevertheless make sense to let them know about your decisions?

I am in favor of informing your children about your fiduciary decisions. You may find that one of them does not want to serve as a fiduciary, or that your children feel another child would be a better choice for a particular job. And if one of your children is disappointed that they were not selected, or were named as a backup to another child rather than as your first choice, it gives you an opportunity to gently discuss the reasons behind that choice with that child. However, since all of your fiduciary selections are subject to change, you should also point out that your fiduciary choices represent your current decisions on these matters and could change over time.

Should you also tell your children about your decisions regarding the disposition of your assets after your death? I believe a general discussion often is helpful. This does not mean that you have to give copies of estate planning documents to your children, or provide them with details about your net worth, but a general discussion about when and how they will receive their inheritance can be helpful, especially if your will or trust do not treat all of your children in the same manner.

For example, your will or trust may leave assets in unequal shares to your children, or treat children from different marriages in surprisingly equal ways. Perhaps your trust treats all of your children equally, but requires the inheritance passing to some, or all, of them to be managed in trust rather than left outright to them. Perhaps your trust holds all of your assets solely for the benefit of your spouse and does not include your children until after your spouse’s death, or, if you own a family business, it leaves your business assets solely to the children involved in the business and your non-business assets to your other children. You believe that all of these decisions are appropriate, but they may upset, or at least disappoint, some of your children.

Given these dynamics, I firmly believe that it is better for your children to learn about your decisions from you during your lifetime rather than from your attorney or another family member after your death. These discussions can be difficult at times because they involve decisions that may favor one child over another, but my experience has been that your children will accept your decisions more easily—and will be less apt to challenge your will and trust after your death—if they have learned about your decisions directly from you and had an opportunity to discuss those decisions with you.Duck


About Andy O'Donnell

Andy is a partner of the firm, practicing in the areas of tax law and estate and business planning. He is the former chair of the Trusts and Estates Group, and he currently serves as a member of the Management Committee.
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