A few years ago, we were shocked to learn that some longtime clients, married over 50 years, died on the same night. Although no one is certain, it appears that she fell, and in attempting to help her, he fell as well. They were found next to each other.
Fortunately, this couple took seriously the need to have an estate plan. They understood the difference between having estate documents and having an actual estate plan. We decided to share their experience as a means of pointing out the important distinction between the two.
Many people have accumulated estate documents, such as a medical power of attorney, an advance directive (also called a living will) and even a last will and testament. However, having those documents in a safety deposit box or safe in the basement is not the same as having an estate plan.
In the unfortunate case of our longtime clients, they had those documents (and a few others, namely a do-not-resuscitate order for each and living trust), but they had also taken the time to talk with their children about what those documents said and why they were important for the parents to have. Those discussions helped the adult children remember that it was really their parents' wishes, and not their assets, that were important for the family to commemorate.
When the children learned of our clients' deaths in such an unexpected way, there was the obvious shock, grief and sadness. But there was also an order to things that helped the family through the grieving process, instead of making that process worse. And like every other client this couple had made very clear their desire that their deaths not divide the family but instead bring the family together.
Unfortunately, we have also seen the opposite results, where even the most well-meaning children have differing recollections of their parents' wishes. And, because the parents had not discussed the eventuality of their passing, those differing recollections turned into family disputes. In every case, the parents did not understand that their silence was actually creating the environment that would eventually lead to family disagreements and arguments that divided the children for years to come.
That risk can be avoided when clear instructions are included in the estate plan and those instructions are shared with everyone that will be affected by the death of the parents or grandparents. When we have this discussion with our clients, we point out that, for all of these reasons, the value of advanced preparation can exceed the value of any assets left behind. It gives our clients what they really want by uniting the family with a common perspective that honors the family relationships.
As we have said in this column many times before, an effective estate plan does not happen automatically, nor does it happen by filling out a form from the internet. To the contrary, an estate plan should bring together every concern, worry or goal and deal with those in a cohesive, open way. Most importantly, an estate plan need not be expensive to be effective. We encourage you to take the opportunity and make 2019 the year when you create the estate plan that fits your unique circumstances.
Brad Wright's business and estate planning practice includes transactional and litigation matters with a special focus on business succession. His brother, Steve, has a similar law practice in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and together they assist businesses of all sizes and types with a wide variety of legal issues. If there are questions about this column or topics you would like us to address in future columns, send an e-mail to bwright@GJlawyer.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 970-270-1213.