Bulletproof Your Will Against Mental Incapacity – With Family Meetings
As the greatest wealth transfer in history begins to gather steam – it’s now worth an estimated $1 trillion a year in the US and Canada alone – a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions is unfolding in courtrooms from coast to coast. The confluence of blended families and super-sized estates is creating the perfect storm for a flood of family litigation.
Beneficiaries, or those who thought they should be and who are feeling aggrieved, are lawyering up like never before and heading to court to fight the injustice. But “justice” is a relative concept that depends on where you sit, and obtaining it has never been more expensive. First-time litigants who are all whipped up about “the principle” get played like violins by a system that feeds on emotion.
My advice: settle quickly. Then project your indignation, anger, sadness and vitriol – whatever you want to call your emotion – where it belongs: on the person who left the mess. Why? Because almost all litigation can be avoided by lifting the veil of secrecy around an estate plan by holding a family meeting and communicating inheritance intentions while everyone is thinking clearly. But this can seem so counter-cultural and frankly disrespectful to the dead. Many prefer to believe that estate plans should be kept secret and that litigating in open court, with daily reports on the front page of local newspapers, is a kinder, gentler form of family therapy.
Many of the 137 million North Americans who are without wills believe they can time the preparation of their estate plans like an oil change. But the insidiousness of dementia – that devastating disease that afflicts an estimated 50 million new patients every year – doesn’t come with adequate warning or with symptoms that say, “You have 25 days to write your will.” Often the ship leaves port without any clear evidence that anyone was even planning to go on a cruise. In the fullness of time, when that person dies, the legal question becomes, “When did they lose their capacity to consider their will?” Ditto for those who have a will, develop dementia and then revise it. Which came first, the revision or the dementia?
While we eagerly await a cure for dementia, thankfully we have access to another therapeutic approach to avoiding family disputes over a loved one’s will. It’s called an annual family meeting attended by those listed as beneficiaries of a will and facilitated by a trusted advisor.
One simple trick to bulletproof your will
Just as oil changes are a fraction of the cost of replacing the engine, regular family meetings are a lot easier than years of litigation. Practically speaking, it’s hard to challenge a will on the basis of mental incapacity when the person doing the willing has expressed their wishes consistently and clearly to all beneficiaries year after year. The beautiful thing about family meetings is that everyone hears the same message at the same time – over and over. That’s what I call a purposeful will.
Ask your trusted advisor to keep minutes of these meetings, especially if that one relative who seems displeased with their portion can’t hide their displeasure.
Remember, how we leave our wealth is as important as what we leave. And leaving a family that functions well even without us can be the greatest gift of all.