Just recently I met with an experienced wills and estates lawyer and asked him to tell me about the most common mistakes people make in planning and processing family estates. His answer... expectations of beneficiaries of what was and what was not.
Now I know expectations of all kinds play an important role in our lives and it comes as no surprise that when our individual expectations are not met we are inclined to be confused, disappointed and perhaps even angry. To avoid these emotions, expectations need to be clearly communicated by others and accepted by the other party. It is the way it is.
Expectations of beneficiaries is also about trust. Unfortunately a family can have many trust issues that have built up over the years and when it comes to the day of settlement these emotional trust issues come to the fore and are difficult for some to keep in perspective. When you mix personal grief, disappointment, trust issues and more in together, it will impact all stakeholders.
My lawyer friend told me that when an estate involving several beneficiaries is being settled by a family executor it is not uncommon for one party to question the monetary amounts involved. If during the will planning process this comes up as a possibility it might be best to appoint a more neutral executor or professional. Yes, this might increase overall expenses of settlement but it may also save time and additional family angst.
Another often mis-construed expectation is how long an estate will normally take to be settled. Different juristrictions have different requirements and may take longer than others. If the executor has to negotiate around other family concerns/questions these will only prolong the process.
I asked... could these not all be avoided by holding family meetings? He explained that different generations have different values. While boomers, for example, might be more open to holding family meetings, older generations may prefer to maintain their privacy, holding their cards close in, so to speak.
Finally we discussed probate. While he does encourage self-help in many respects he pointed out that probate can be complex particulary in navigating income tax guidelines. While self-help can reduce legal fees, the complexity of tax issues and resulting delays and penalties may well wipe-out any potential professional fee savings and could well increase amounts payable, thereby reducing the net value of the estate.
Some interesting comments that remind me that things are not always as simple as they appear to be. Remember, you won't be present when your estate is being settled so consider your approach carefully during the planning stages.