A well-developed estate plan considers family dynamics
April 3, 2012
Estate planning has come a long way.- Historically, an estate would transfer from father to oldest child, and that child would be responsible for caring for his mother. In America, at least since women have gained the right to own property (which occurred in almost all states by 1900), estate planning has often included a bequeath of all property to a surviving spouse and then to the children.
There are fundamental challenges with this style of estate planning. The primary challenge exists largely because after the death of the first spouse, things change – especially for happily married folks: They tend to remarry. I have often shared my belief that husbands are hard-wired to care for their wives, and wives are hard-wired to care for their children. The blend of that wiring generally creates a functional family. However, what happens when the wife and her tendencies are removed from the family dynamic? For whom is the husband wired to care? His (new) wife! And, if she outlives her husband, for whom is she hard wired to care? Her children! And, since these two fell in love in their 70s, are her children his children? No. If this situation arises and we stick to the early American style of estate planning, the children in the happily married family are often disinherited.
Another challenge arises when a happily married person develops a long-term illness, especially when it is a second spouse. The challenge is first frustrated when typical estate planning is in place and the healthy spouse doesn’t step up to the plate as the biological children believe they should. The children often then want that caregiver spouse left penniless. Or, if the loving care results in that transfer of assets to the second spouse, animosity may grow between the stepparent and the children.
What is the answer? A well-developed estate plan. A good estate planning attorney will get to know you and your family dynamics. They will learn the desires of both parents, while they are both healthy. That attorney may play what-if scenarios to determine whether clients are more comfortable with a more complex estate plan or more comfortable risking the assets not reaching the intended recipient. There is no right or wrong answer, but it is important to remember that absence of a decision-maker can significantly change the end result. Whatever the answer is, there are options to assure that your heart’s desire for your spouse and for your children can be attained.
• Darcy K. Houghton is a resident of Carson City and works in trust and wealth management with Whittier Trust and is Of Counsel to Houghton Jones (www.hou2plan.com).