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Keeping drama low

Portrait of mature African-American woman embracing friend during family gathering at dinner party outdoors, copy space

My parents are often on my mind as I work on my book about estate planning through a therapeutic lens. Mom and Dad’s approach to estate planning was open and matter-of-fact; the discussions revolved not around  their mortality but instead around legal descriptions of the various pieces of farmland and the best way to transfer them for tax purposes.

Since then, I’ve worked with families whose estate planning included more drama than what I saw in the Blacklock family and I understand why that is the case: it is really hard to think about our deaths and of course estate planning is directly related to death. Nevertheless, I believe that the soundest estate planning,  with the best long term results, is done in an atmosphere of well-managed emotions.

There are a couple of different scenarios in which estate planning is discussed with the beneficiaries and today I have a few suggestions for the non-conflict situation when the estate plan is quite straightforward with each beneficiary treated the same way. Several of these ideas were shared with me by my friend and former colleague at BMO, Sara Plant, who is skilled at speaking with people about estate planning in a clear, concise and neutral manner:

  1. If you have a partner/spouse, agree before the meeting what you want to discuss and what you want to achieve. Get clear on the attitudes you want to bring to the meeting and, if possible, agree to leave out the drama and to wait until strong emotions aren’t swamping you so that your words, tone, facial expressions and body language contribute to a calm, friendly discussion.
  2. Be clear on the situation i.e. the facts, the possible scenarios, the route that you have decided on or are considering. In other words, it is best to have met with your advisors and have a clear understanding of the issues you want to discuss. For example, if you plan to put the family cottage in a trust for 10 years after your death with a fund to pay for maintenance and upkeep, get clear on what this will mean to your family and be prepared for their questions.
  3. Know exactly what you’d like to ask your beneficiaries, for example, do one or all of them want to be estate trustees, do they have a view on the length of any trusts, do they have a view on involving corporate trustees?
  4. Be honest about what you want, “My wish is that the cottage can be a source of enjoyment for at least a decade before you need to decide what to do…” or “My wish is that after our death, there are no surprises…”. Use a phrase like, “What I’m wondering is..” rather than “What I want all of you to do is…”
  5. Avoid language like, “if the plane goes down”, “when we’re gone”, or “after we kick the bucket”. It’s hard to hear phrases like this and not start feeling fairly negative about the conversation. Instead use phrases like, “the documents say” and “the will directs”.
  6. Set an intention to be open to questions and to really listen to the answers. Remember that the best way to respond to someone who is upset is to let them be upset without judgment. Remember, nothing needs to be resolved in one meeting.
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