It’s Personal (Estate Planning That Is)

I recently received an email from clients whose out-of-state parents had just updated their Wills and Estate Plan, for the first time in 37 years. Their son, who is 40-something, joked he was relieved to no longer have to “go to aunt Mary” when his parents passed away. (This is the typical estate planning experience, but that’s a topic for another blog post…)

While the family was visiting together, they discussed the changes to the parents’ estate plan. The family members present included highly educated individuals, two of whom hold law degrees but do not practice in this area of the law. The discussion elicited comments to which my clients were unsure how, if at all, to respond.

First, my clients were surprised that lawyers wouldn’t be more informed about estate planning. To this I replied that much like heart surgeons probably don’t make the best obstetricians and dermatologists probably shouldn’t do root canals, the legal profession is also highly and increasingly specialized. Estate planning courses are electives in law school and if one has never studied or practiced in that area, why should he be expected to understand its complexities? Even very intelligent, well-educated, licensed and practicing lawyers are not all well-versed in all areas of the law. This is perhaps the most compelling reason not to hire a generalist.

Second, my clients were taken aback by the very different personal values and attitudes toward estate planning they heard their other family members express, including the following comments:

“The purpose of the documents are not to govern your loved ones.
You cannot control behavior post-mortem.”


“If the kids receive all the money when they are 18 and blow it, it is theirs to blow.”

“You’re dead. Why do you care how the money is spent?
There is nothing you can do about it when you’re dead.”

I reminded my clients that the purposes of engaging in and one’s own estate planning needs and goals are highly personal. As with just about anything, reasonable, well-intentioned people can disagree fundamentally.

In addition, the topics involved, including death, dying, disability, and incapacity, are at least a little unsettling for most people. This is particularly true for those whose cultural beliefs make them so (as most Americans’ do), and those who perceive themselves to be closer to actually experiencing those things. In the process of discussing their own mortality and creating their estate plans, most of my clients respond with wise cracks and nervous laughter, though some break down in tears. In addition, most couples planning together engage in at least one rather heavy conversation together privately, sometimes disagreeing and struggling to reach compromise on matters of importance to each, even as each has his or her own way of coping with the emotions involved.

A person’s beliefs regarding whether it matters and whether to care about what happens to her loved ones and her assets after her death is highly personal. If someone thinks it’s perfectly fine to let a very young adult blow an entire inheritance and end up destitute, that’s her choice, though most of my clients would firmly disagree.

As a practical and legal matter, there most certainly are some things you can do to control how money is spent, on what, by whom, when, how it is managed, and how those assets are protected. Most of my clients would agree that there are some very legitimate reasons for wanting to do so that go far beyond a selfish desire to exert control from one’s grave. For example, it is possible to shelter assets so that in the event of the death of one spouse while there are still minor children, the decedent’s assets can be protected and ensured to go eventually to those children rather than permitting the surviving spouse to lose those assets through a lawsuit, subsequent divorce, or gifting those assets away for example to a charity, new partner or spouse, or scam.

It is also possible to set up a trust to protect your children’s inheritance, while giving them control at a reasonable age or ages of your choosing, to protect them from their own immature judgment, lawsuits, their own possible divorces, and even in the event they have creditor problems or addictions or mental health issues that would require them to receive assistance managing their money for their own health, maintenance, and support. These are not examples of “control freak” measures, but rather of loving gestures you can make now to ensure the continued security and support of your loved ones in the event of your inability to continue to do so.

My clients responded to my email encouraging me to turn it into a blog post, wasn’t that kind?

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About Danielle G. Van Ess

Danielle G. Van Ess is a Massachusetts (born and raised), experienced estate planning and small business attorney who helps her clients protect and preserve what matters most to them. To learn more, please visit: dgvelaw.com or call: 781-740-0848

One thought on “It’s Personal (Estate Planning That Is)

  1. In response to the comments made about not worrying about how one's money is spent after death (and similiarly allowing a “child” to blow the money they receive at 18) as a parent, I expect that my responsibility to my children will last beyond my own death. I chose to bring my children into this world, and have the responsibility to guide & teach them to be responsible adults. If I were still alive when my children are 18, I wouldn't turn over all my money to them, nor would I allow them control of it if I were so unfortunate as to die while they are young. That's the beauty of a well planned estate, it allows us to continue to provide guidance even when we are no longer able to so in person.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post.

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