A Crucial Component to a Successful Estate Plan: The Family Meeting

Jan 3, 2020 10:06:50 AM


Congratulations! You’ve created a comprehensive estate plan for your client. Now that all documents are signed and handed over to the client, does that mark the end of an estate planner’s job? According to the book Estate Planning for the Post-Transition Period, the majority of estate plans that fail do so because of non-legal/non-technical aspects. These errors have nothing to do with your perfectly drafted estate plan. Rather, they are issues related to lack of communication and inaction on the part of your clients’ family. Today, the most common reasons for failure are:

  1. Beneficiaries being ill-equipped to handle their inheritance and thus spend the money unwisely.
  2. Heirs being surprised by the estate details and finding them to be unfair go on to pursue litigation. 
  3. Agents not being made aware of their duties.
  4. Proper trust funding not completed prior to death.


The good news is that estate planners can help prevent these issues and ensure that clients’ plans are properly executed as they were intended by encouraging clients to meet with their families to communicate their estate plans. 


 “40% of children believe their parents’ estate plans were unfair.”


Estate planners can deliver even more value to their clients by offering to participate in these meetings. Not only are attorneys better able to explain how the plan works, but this also provides an opportunity to build relationships with your clients’ family members who may need to reach out to you for help executing their parents’ plan (or creating a plan of their own).


The Importance of Setting an Agenda

One way to ensure a successful family meeting is to help your clients prepare a meeting agenda. This is an important step to ensure that all necessary information is discussed—or to determine the information your client wishes to disclose at the time. That way if the meeting becomes emotional, having an agenda will help keep the discussion on track and not get derailed or hijacked by other family members. 

The agenda should cover your clients’ objectives, purposes, goals, and expected outcomes. The intention of this meeting should be to prepare family members for what they can expect and what they may need to do if/when your client becomes disabled or dies. If your client prefers, no specific financial information or values of assets needs to be disclosed at this meeting.


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Other Considerations to Make

Clients should expect there to be some anxiety as the meeting begins, due to the discussion of sensitive issues. There may be additional challenges for clients with blended families, or for clients who may have a child that is not financially ready to handle an inheritance. To make sure these meetings run as smoothly as possible, here are a few other considerations for your clients: 

  • Select an appropriate venue. A crowded restaurant is not suitable for a serious discussion. The location should encourage discussion but also convey the seriousness of the meeting. You, as the attorney, or the client’s financial advisor, will probably have access to a meeting room. A family room that accommodates everyone also can work.
  • Select a date that is convenient for everyone. A traditional family gathering time, like the Thanksgiving weekend, may be convenient; but advise your client to be mindful that conducting the meeting before the actual holiday may spoil a family gathering if their situation involves difficult topics.
  • Limit the meeting to adults. Make arrangements for the care of young children so your client has the parents' full attention.

Having clients discuss these issues out in the open can be difficult at first, but it often leads to greater understanding and acceptance. For other resources on client education and relationship building, visit our resource center, check out our education calendar, or subscribe to our legal magazine, the Quarterly.

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