What Should I Tell My Children About My Estate Plan?

By Brittany Littleton

It is understandable that you would be cautious in talking about your estate plan. For seniors, it can also be difficult to find balance in wanting your adult children to be prepared to help you as you age but also wanting to maintain your independence from well-meaning family members who may prematurely decide that you need them to make choices for you.

Privacy is important, so I typically recommend that my clients limit the information they share about their estate plan with their children. However, I also tell them that keeping their estate plan a total secret is usually a mistake. If your family does not know that you have completed legal documents or where to find them, they will not know what you want upon your incapacity or death.

I typically recommend that my clients inform their adult children and any nominated decision-makers that they have completed their estate plan. If your adult children are not actively helping as an agent or successor trustee, it is usually sufficient to just let them know where you keep your documents if they ever need to access them. You can also share your attorney’s contact information, and tell your kids to contact the attorney’s office if there is an emergency.

Even if your nominated decision-maker is someone other than your adult child, it can still make sense to share this information with your child because he or she would likely be the person with legal standing to ask the court for permission to act on your behalf if they do not know you already have a plan in place. However, if you are worried that an adult child having information would create problems, talk to your nominated decision-maker and your attorney about things that may be appropriate in your circumstances to make sure a “problem child” does not try to intervene on your behalf against your wishes.

While some clients are too private, others want to overshare. Clients regularly request extra copies of estate planning documents because they want to distribute them to each kid, their bank, their accountant, their financial advisor, etc. I discourage this. Instead, think about sharing the physical copies on an “as you need to know” basis. Whether you share the details of your estate plan is a personal decision that I talk through with my clients on a case-by-case basis. You certainly do not have to invite your children’s opinion on your choices, especially if you know they are likely to create problems or argue with you about how something should be handled.

If your estate plan includes detailed special instructions that may surprise a family member, it may be because you are addressing an existing problem or specific risk that is already a matter of conflict. If that is the case, talking about your choice in advance may not be helpful. But if you are in a situation where you want to explain your rationale, an honest conversation can help your family avoid conflict after you are gone. Two examples where this may apply are: when assets are distributed unequally due to lifetime gifts, financial disparities or special needs; and if there are gifts that need explanation – like one child will inherit a business that they also work in and helped build, and the other will inherit the family home and cash.

Brittany Littleton owns and operates Littleton Legal. Her practice focuses on business law, estate planning, elder law, trust administration and probate. She is a firm believer that clients are best served when their legal, financial and accounting advisors are working collaboratively to strategize and advocate on their behalf.  

A Signature Partner with BA Seniors, Littleton will write a column each month covering issues such as how to avoid probate court, mistakes to avoid in leaving an inheritance or emergency decision documents every senior needs. If you have a question that you would like answered or a topic you would like to see covered, send your thoughts to Sean Simpson at sean@baseniors.org.