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Estate Planning and Etiquette

May is National Etiquette Month. “Etiquette” is a fancy word for manners and “Manners”, I have heard, is just a formalization of what we call love and respect. Therefore, the month of May could be the solution for all of the ills in our society.  Etiquette may not solve all of society’s ills, but it can inform and improve your estate plan.

I have heard estate planning defined as a formalized way “to give all you have to everyone you love”. A well-crafted estate plan ensures that your wishes are respected while providing the inheritance to your loved ones.

Estate planning can also address the question “What happens if you don’t die?” That is, what happens when you become ill and are unable to make decisions for yourself prior to death. Disability planning in your estate plan can be anything from contingency planning to accommodating what is or has a high probability chance of happening.

Good manners and decorum can help minimize potential conflicts and disputes that may arise among family members during the planning process. It is cliché, after the parent’s influence is removed, for all the uglies to surface. Fights over the ancient rocking chair or grandma’s cookbook can take on an outsized importance. As such, it is important to observe proper etiquette when planning and executing your estate plan to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition of your assets to your loved ones. This may involve communicating openly and honestly with family members about your plan and considering their feelings and opinions, or it may involve preparing for the inevitable conflict with your estate planning documents. Showing respect and sensitivity to family members can prevent future potential legal challenges that could arise from disagreements.

The following are some ways that you can bolster your estate plan by incorporating the key elements of etiquette.

Consideration. An estate plan can create a sense of stability and calm in times of loss or uncertainty. No matter what level of wealth you currently enjoy, if you do not leave detailed instructions for the type of medical care you want, you will be putting those you love most in the position of being mind readers. The current state of the law is that your health care agent can be equipped to take your healthcare wishes expressed at coffee the morning you were hospitalized and carry them all the way to the US Supreme Court. Otherwise, the agents you rely upon for assistance will have to do their best to figure out what you would have wanted and then deal with the consequences. You are more likely to have a good result if you prepare and protect your agents from unnecessary difficulties such as unhappy family members who disagree with them. A well-crafted estate plan shows consideration for your loved ones by preventing confusion about what to do and helping them avoid the pressure of making ad hoc decisions.

Additionally, a carefully prepared estate plan can allow you to customize a plan that provides for your loved ones in a unique way that takes into consideration your loved one’s personal circumstances. Then your family can find solace in the love and consideration you showed them by ensuring that your estate plan was appropriately tailored, and not just a one-size-fits-all solution.

Demonstrating consideration for your family also includes careful consideration of who you choose as trusted decision makers. Each agent’s role in an estate plan is important and is best handled by individuals with the right skills. If you enjoy the wealth of multiple candidates for a decision maker, it is important that you pick the right person for the job and that the person you choose can handle the responsibilities. Often times the most competent person is the person that everyone chooses. Therefore, selecting an overcommitted loved one to serve as your agent may not be the best choice.

Respect. Estate planning makes it easier for your loved ones to respect your wishes because they know exactly what you want. Trust-based estate plans can respect you and your loved ones’ right to privacy by keeping private matters out of the public eye. Without a comprehensive trust-based estate plan, your estate will be exposed to the public in probate. This means that your choices become visible to the public, as does any information that needs to be filed with the court (like a list of everything you owned).

Honesty. An estate plan can bring a family together. News stories are rife with examples of beneficiaries arguing over a deceased loved one’s money and property or instances of a person’s care and end-of-life wishes being ignored. An estate plan can avoid those types of emotionally draining situations. Clear communication to your family and agents of your end-of-life care preferences will go a long way to softening any misunderstandings. Sometimes folks also take the opportunity to write an Ethical Will for their family members – passing along hopes, dreams, stories, and wisdom.

By crafting an estate plan that is considerate of one’s loved ones, respectful of privacy, and honest about wishes for care and end-of-life decisions, you can improve the odds of conflict being avoided and your wishes being carried out in the most respectful and dignified manner possible.

If you are interested in learning more about our estate planning process, or to update your existing plan, please schedule a meeting with us.