We’d like to believe that sibling rivalry stops when your kids mature and become adults, but the truth is in most families it never ends. (Have you seen Succession?) When planning your estate, you need to consider how your children will be involved, and not just who gets what. Estate planning requires naming people for important jobs, and while it might be tempting to avoid this touchy subject, selecting these roles in advance can help avoid disputes, heartache, and massive legal fees later on.
We’ve always believed that one of the best gifts you can give your children, which they don’t even know they need, is a well thought out estate plan. Not only can you rest assured that your end of life wishes are carried out as seamlessly as possible, but you’ll also be helping your children and loved ones move on without taking their grief or other volatile emotions out on each other.
Tips On Splitting Up Estate Planning Duties
Fairness is a great approach to parenting, not estate planning.
If you’re a parent with multiple children, it’s likely that you’ve been incorporating this strategy since the beginning. For example, maybe when your kids were young you decided to be fair and offered each child the same chance to learn a sport, or the same opportunity to participate in special extra curricular activities. Estate planning is not the same thing. Determining which of your children is assigned which jobs should depend on suitability, personality, reliability, and educational background - not fairness.
Consider the innate differences among your children.
Despite all your best efforts at fairness, your children have probably grown up to be very different individuals as adults. When it comes to determining which kids are right for which roles, you can actually use these differences to help you choose roles. Differences can help you align your adult children to the proper duty. As tough as it might be, you may have a child that isn’t suited to any role. While it’d be pretty great if you had a lawyer, doctor, and accountant as children to split up the jobs easily, we’ll break down some ways to help you decide. Trust us, your children might feel a bit slighted now but will thank you later.
Important Estate Planning Positions
Health Care Proxy: Should you become unable to make health decisions on your own, due to either physical or mental issues, you can name this person to make medical decisions for you. If you don’t decide on this yourself, and none of your children see eye-to-eye on who should be making decisions, the court will pick someone for you (and it most likely won't be easy or pretty).
Traits for handling the job
- Trustworthy: You ideally want this person to share your moral values, or understand that they can be relied upon to follow your wishes. They’ll be privy to your wishes for care including end-of-life treatment (ideally in the form of a Living Will); if they don’t have any written direction it’ll be up to them to make the call that best aligns with what you would have wanted.
- Communication skills: This person will be dealing with doctors, nurses, and other family and friends, and should be able to communicate complicated, scientific, and emotional detailed information with tact.
- Emotional strength: Love is a powerful emotion and along with it comes sadness and anguish when your loved one is ill or dying. You need to be sure this person can handle difficult decisions and situations even when they are emotionally distressed, and won’t be swayed by others telling (or yelling) opposing viewpoints that wouldn’t align with your own.
Power of Attorney (POA): If you should become unable physically or mentally to handle your finances while you’re still alive, this important document will legally allow a person to handle your finances including payment of your bills, management of your investments, filing taxes, and management of property.
Traits for handling the job
- Money management skills: Important decisions involving expensive assets like property management or sales may need to be made so be sure this person has experience managing these types of decisions, or at least has the sense to consult a professional if they’re out of their depth.
- Time management skills: Bill paying requires an organized person that will be able to meet due dates for bills, payment for services, and more depending on the scope and size of your estate.
- Honest: The power to access and allocate funds demands a high degree of integrity and honesty. Using any funds for personal benefit is a form of embezzlement and punishable by law.
Executor: You name this person in your Will and it's their responsibility to make sure your Will gets carried out according to your wishes.
Traits for handling the job
- Organized: This person must be equipped with excellent organizational skills because there’s a lot of details and paperwork to handle. They must be able to juggle multiple tasks including filing your Will with the courts, paying off any debts, distributing assets, and closing accounts to name a few.
- Responsible: This person must be honest and reliable since any improprieties can result in criminal charges. For this reason they’ll almost certainly have to hire an attorney to represent your estate in probate court, either because it’s required by law of that state, or it’s too confusing and time consuming for a non-attorney to understand.
- Patient: The settling of an estate can take anywhere from a few months to a few years depending upon the size and complexity of the estate, as well as any issues that may arise during probate court (example: if someone contests the Will). You need to be sure this person can fulfill this long and important responsibility, all the while holding creditors and beneficiaries at bay while they clamor for their money.
Don’t forget to name alternates for each of these positions listed above in case your primary choice isn’t available or up to task for whatever reason at the time of your passing. This can help assuage any guilt you feel for favoring some of your children above the others.
Other Estate Planning Duties
The three positions we mentioned above are the most important. If you only complete those you’re well ahead of the game, but you might be the type that wants to do even more. Here are other duties you can assign to your adult children, and possibly grandchildren, if you don’t want to put it all on the most responsible kid.
Trustee: If you create a Trust, which you can learn all about here, this is the person who manages it and makes sure all the instructions are followed. Typically this person will be working with a financial institution or professional (estate attorney, financial advisor) to make sure the assets in the Trust are managed and distributed properly. If they’re required to be more involved, such as filing taxes for the Trust, you’ll want this to be someone who’s financially sound, reliable, and willing to ask for help when they need it.
Digital Executor: What do you want done with all your digital assets when you’re gone? Perhaps the child you name as your executor is also adept at managing your digital world as well, or maybe one of the other kids (or grandkids) is more technically suited to the task. This person will likely work with the executor to access email, contacts, texts, digital accounts and services, as well as retrieve and organize personal items such as photos, videos, documents, and anything else stored on a computer, phone, or in the cloud. Qualities in this person should be trustworthiness and discretion since they’ll have access to parts of your life that can be very private. [Learn More: How To Create A Digital Estate Plan]
Funeral Agent: We’re making this sound a lot fancier than it is, and we don’t expect many people to name one of your children as your official funeral agent, but it begs the question: Does your family know what type of funeral and body disposition you want? Do you want a traditional funeral or informal memorial? Should it follow your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), or a different format? Should there be no funeral at all? Do you want to be buried, cremated, or donated? If you don’t let someone know what you want, these are the things your family might be fighting over at the worst possible time.
Life Isn’t Fair
There’s a chance you don’t know your kids as well as you think you do, so you should also keep an open mind. When you feel comfortable to share this information with your children, which is something you should definitely do (it should never come as a surprise), there’s a possibility you might need to make some adjustments. Like if you’re approached in private after you’ve revealed your decisions and are told “there’s no way he’ll ever pull the plug on you under any circumstances” or “are you aware she’s three months behind on rent and maxed out all her credit cards?” you might have to make some adjustments. The side benefit of this, apart from needing to update your estate plan, is it gives you an opportunity to open up new lines of communication with your adult children before it’s too late.
There’s also a possibility your children will be upset with your decisions, or who you’ve chosen to carry them out, which is why you have to make it clear this isn’t about them. It’s about you. Just because you named one kid to be your POA, trustee, and executor (digital included), another to be your Health Care Proxy and funeral planner, and left the other two completely out of any official duties shouldn’t make you feel bad. You don’t have to be mean about it or make it an indictment about who they are on a personal level, but this isn’t an event where everyone gets a trophy. It’s hard, complicated, emotional work and it’s your responsibility as a parent to set them up for success even if it hurts someone’s feelings in the short run. Plus, if any get extremely upset and throw a tantrum, you’ll know you made the right choice in excluding them.