Be Clear or Shut Up! The Importance of Communication

I recently had conversations with a couple of lawyers who also practice probate litigation. We agreed that probate litigation is often the result of poor communication. Specifically, parents tell their children what the children want to hear or use ambiguous phrases like “don’t worry you’ll be taken care of.”  The same goes for other relatives and friends who might be expected to be remembered by you with money or assets when you pass away.

Here is one example of muddled communications — A decedent’s nieces and nephews sued their aunt’s beneficiaries claiming undue influence. The nieces and nephews said their aunt called the beneficiaries the “cleaning lady” and “the lawnman.” The beneficiaries said the decedent disliked her nieces and nephews, but the nieces and nephews swore the aunt loved them and promised to “take care of them” when she died. I believe both sides were telling the truth. The decedent had a prickly, cranky, insecure personality and had told each side what they wanted to hear and whatever made her feel important. Coupled with the fact that she waited to do her estate planning until she was on the way to the hospital where she died, it was a perfect recipe for a lawsuit.

Children often overestimate the wealth of their parents when they don’t know what their parents actually own. They may not realize that dad obsesses over MSNBC and Bloomberg because he enjoys it and that $100,000.00 in 10 or 20 stocks is all he has. They think he’s obsessively monitoring his millions. A phrase like “don’t worry I’ll take care of you” is ambiguous enough to cause problems. For the parent it may mean, “I’m leaving you $10,000.00,” but for the kids it may mean. “Don’t worry I’ll make sure you’re set for life.”

Here are some tips to make sure your legacy to your heirs and beneficiaries isn’t a lawsuit:

  • Be clear. Make sure that your children and other beneficiaries know what to expect from you at your death.
  • Don’t just tell people what they want to hear. You don’t have to tell people you hate them, but you shouldn’t misrepresent your relationships with others either/
  • Don’t wait until the last possible moment to meet with a lawyer and plan your estate.
  • Don’t wait until you’re incapable of making your appointments and arrangements to visit a lawyer before planning your estate.
  • If you remarry and have children from a previous marriage, get a prenuptial. If you later decide to ignore or revoke the prenuptial, do so in writing.
  • Don’t share your estate plan with someone or promise to “take care of them” and then set up all of your accounts and beneficiary designations so they pass outside of the estate plan that leaves everything to someone else.
  • Don’t make misleading or false promises to people you don’t intend to “take care of” in your estate plan.

This list is far from comprehensive. The bottom line is to be honest with yourself and others. Do what you can to not make misleading statements or promises or to give false hopes or expectations. You may save your heirs and beneficiaries a lot of headaches.

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