Yours, Mine, Ours and Theirs Part 2: Opening the Conversation

Spring Flowers

Spring Flowers

This article from last June in The Huffington Post cites a Pew Research Center number from 2011 which states that a whopping 42% of American adults have a step relationship – as in step-parent, step- or half-sibling, or step-child.  I suspect the numbers have risen since that study….

It is not surprising that with the large number of remarriages involving children from a prior relationship, some of the basic priorities in estate planning can be much more fluid and complex.  In the title of this series I have added “theirs” at the end of “yours, mine and ours” – and this is for the simple reason that, in my experience, many spouses in a blended family relationship wish to preserve for their own descendants a certain portion of their estate.  In my experience with blended family estate planning, many spouses in blended family later life relationships consider their children’s inheritance as something separate in a way that few people married only to each other and with common children have ever done.  So let’s begin with identifying some of the terrain we will cover.

The Questions. . . .

What are the common goals that both spouses have in mind?

First off is the obvious question – how to provide for your adult children while taking care of your surviving spouse?  Considering things like life insurance, retirement benefits and other available resources can be immensely helpful, particularly when these resources are coordinated in such a way as to meet the common identified goals.  Since I represent primarily older adults with grown children, I won’t be looking at the second family and providing for them along with a spouse as well as from a first marriage?  How do we balance providing for children with providing for the surviving spouse?  Well, I must repeat that lawyer mantra here: it depends.  The fact is – there is no template for the values, choices, or goals of spouses in a blended family and how they provide for their respective children.  Yes, life is getting more complicated all the time it seems, but I would submit that with the exploration of some basic information, many otherwise inevitable conflicts can be avoided or at least minimized!  This is why it is so important to identify these questions that can loom large and cause much anxiety.

The Nature of Potential Conflict . . .

When a couple can identify the goals and values of their planning, developing a strategy for meeting them can become a bit simpler (note – I did not say easy – there is a huge difference between simple and easy!).  Identifying the source of conflict that can arise, which can threaten those values and goas the couple has identified, is a simple but powerful way of bringing more daylight into the conversation.  Talking about personality conflicts, communication styles and how to allocate scarce resources – be they common or separate resources, can have a positive impact on the planning process.  If this all sounds like a bit too much, I would submit that this groundwork laying is imperative and indeed makes for going early on in the process.  Perhaps you are familiar with the expression to go slow at the beginning to go fast later.  Reminds me of a favorite Ella Fitzgerald song!

The Varying Styles of Conflict Among People . . .

Important to consider here are some of the stumbling blocks that many of us place in front of this conversation, as well as those which may arise and otherwise derail a constructive and wanted conversation on this topic.  What I am talking about here is how each of us deals with conflict in terms of how we communicate in the midst of conflict.  There are five basic conflict communication styles:

  • Confrontation
  • Accommodation
  • Compromise
  • Conciliation
  • Avoidance

Many of us do not exclusively rely on a single style here, and that is a good thing!  What the conflict styles can teach us – and how this conversation can enrich and deepen a relationship among spouses – is about values (the first item I wrote about above) and how they shape who we are and how we behave.   Our perceptions and assumptions about who we are, who our spouse is and how the children of the blended family are included in the planning (either directly or indirectly) can be valuable ways to explore the depth of a relationship and chart a course through otherwise troubled waters.

I’m not saying that a plan is going to be 100% foolproof – I would not say that because everything is subject to change.  What I’m saying is that it is better to talk about the elephant in the room, to identify its function for shedding light on our goals and values of the spousal and family relationships we have.

More to come!

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Yours, Mine, Ours and Theirs: Estate Planning Challenges for Blended Families

denver elder law

Square in Assisi

 

This is the first of a series I will be writing about the modern challenge of estate planning for the “blended family” – with a particular focus on couples with adult children.  Today’s post will serve as an introduction and overview.

Yes, the days of the “Leave it to Beaver” style family are long gone.  So what has replaced it as the norm?  Well, not much of a norm at all really, which is why so many people pine for the good old days when things were so much simpler!   Let’s face it, we’re living longer and many of us are choosing to be married or coupled for love and not for life and many baby boomers have chosen different routes for their life partnerships than our parents.  There is simply no template or norm for these couples and their families looking into longevity planning, caregiving arrangements or estate planning priorities when it comes to the modern blended family.  This basic fact makes the whole effort just that much more daunting for most of us – but if we break it down into a conversation that has a beginning and a “to do” list based on the priorities identified in that conversation, efforts can be greatly simplified just by virtue of talking about the obvious, the gorilla in the room that demands our attention (or else).

The impetus for this series of blog posts began with a suggestion by one of my colleagues who organizes the Jefferson County Senior Law Day, at which I have spoken about durable powers of attorney and conservatorships for the last few years.  At this year’s event, scheduled for Saturday, June 4th, I have agreed to take on a new topic – on the challenges of longevity and estate planning in the context of the blended family.  (And yes, it’s the same weekend as the Larimer Square Chalk Art Festival.  I’m happy to be sponsoring the square by my artist cousin, Martin Calomino. . . .  I’m sure I’ll be posting some of the pictures from that festival to adorn my blog posts!)

I’ve posted on this general topic before, but I’m going to be looking into this in a much more in-depth manner.  I have looked into some internet resources for blended families with adult step-children.  I was surprised to find a number of good articles.  This article talks about the importance of identifying expectations when adult step children are part of a blended family.  When I work with a couple who have a “blended family” – there is a wide range of possibilities along the scale of what is considered blended.  Sometimes there are common family events in which the is frequent, regular or expected interaction among the adult step-siblings, while other times these opportunities to interact are few and far between.  Here is an article with some practical ideas about what a newly married couple did to ensure that the four adult children (two from both husband and wife) had the opportunity to feel like they were welcome in their parent’s home and included in family activities.  Here’s an interview style article that looks at a rocky start to a closely-knit blended family.

So, what exactly am I going to be writing about in this topical series of posts?

Here’s an overview of my next post:

Identifying Some of the Challenges for the Blended Family- including (1) what are the assumptions that govern a couple’s thinking about their relationship relative to the relationship with their children;  (2) the dangers of pretending that there is no potential for conflict; (3) starting up the conversation about the difficult questions and talking constructively about what will happen if and what will happen when; (4) getting familiar with what the challenges of longevity mean for couples in a blended family; and (5) the importance of estate planning to minimize conflict among members of a blended family.

In later posts, I will be looking at the different ways those challenges of getting started with the conversation and identifying values and priorities can be effectively met.  Rest assured, this is seldom a “once and for all” kind of arrangement – the importance of paying attention to changes in our lives and making the necessary adjustments cannot be overemphasized.  To that end, I will be looking at estate planning – both chosen and inadvertent, in the context of the freedom of testation (writing a will) and freedom from testation (the “plan” that most people choose, which means doing nothing and facing the consequences of the law of intestacy of your state of residency).  I will also be looking at identifying different kinds of property, both testate and intestate as well – in order to come up with a cohesive “big picture” estate plan.  And I will be revisiting the marital agreement and the usefulness of such an agreement to spell out many important details of a couple’s estate plan.

That’s all for now. . .

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Can I Promote Family Harmony With My Estate Plan?

The short answer to this question is of course yes, but it may take some careful thought.   For most of us, our family is the most important thing in our lives – the most valuable asset, so what can be done to protect relationships in an estate plan?  Sometimes conflict can be prevented through merely providing clear instructions to the right people, and in other contexts – it is much more complicated than that.  We have come a long way since the “in terrorem” or “no contest” clause was a standard feature of wills, and many practitioners are of the opinion that the “no contest” clause – which purports to penalizes a challenger of a will – leaves the testator (person writing the will) with a false sense of security that the clause will prevent a lawsuit.

So what if your family perhaps doesn’t resemble the 1950’s TV family?  Most families today certainly don’t.   The AARP Magazine recently (April/May 2012) had an article about parent-child estrangements.    It features an interview with California psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. who recommends the following tips for healing a serious estrangement with your adult child:

  1. Own up to the conflict and take responsibility for mistakes you have made.
  2. Accept a contrary view and don’t try to prove them wrong (use empathic listening).
  3. Don’t try to make your child feel sorry for what they’ve done, this is likely to escalate resentment.
  4. Hear them out – ask questions and really listen attentively, not defensively.
  5. Don’t give up too soon, you may need to reach out long before the healing can begin.
  6. Avoid giving criticism or unsolicited advice.

Each of us is free to walk away from difficult or unfulfilling relationships, the article observes, but it also poses a more complicated follow-up question – what are we sacrificing for that freedom to walk away?

As parents live longer, adult children may struggle with the how and when of becoming an adult in their relationship with a parent, and for some that may never happen.  Many of our sibling relationships may get stuck in a particular time and not progress beyond into the present.  If siblings presuppose equal shares, then it’s a good idea to think about fairly typical scenarios in today’s world: what if one sibling is well off and another is struggling financially? How do you treat an adult child who has been the primary caregiver for a frail or ailing parent?  The best thing to start with, as Jane Bryant Quinn observed – is a conversation with children ahead of time about what you’re doing and why.  She quotes a New Hampshire estate planner who states “the greatest mistake I’ve seen in my practice comes when children have neither been apprised of a parent’s intentions nor been invited to participate in the decision-making process.”  Clients are of course free to not speak to their children, and some of my colleagues advise against it and tend to value more highly the privacy interest of the client making the will.  This is fine, but people making an estate plan need to know the potential cost for such silence.

Inheritance anxiety can also escalate where a surviving parent remarries.  Calling this a “blended family,” when the children are all adults may be a bit of a stretch.   Keep in mind that the assumption of inheritance among children may complicate their expectation of money with love, so meaningful communication (in whichever form works for the client) is strongly advised.

Finally, I’ll refer to a June 10, 2012, Denver Post article by Kirk Mitchell  which was about a suspected double murder-suicide in southwestern Colorado that may have been committed by a very resentful son who was not left ranch property from his mother.  For better or for worse, children expect inherit their parents’ property and siblings expect equal distribution.  There are many ways to soften the sting of unequal distribution.

It’s best to consider some basic aspects of human nature when you’re making an estate plan, along with the value of family relationships.  Another good idea is to address personal property – items that may have high emotional value like inherited jewelry and other personal items, things with sentimental value – in a separate memorandum (this is a nice feature of Colorado law) referred to in the will.  I often advise clients to share their stories about such items with their family members while they are still living, and in some circumstances –  if the client is so inclined – to give away these items to the intended recipients.  The bottom line – it is best to try and live in and honor those treasured relationships now so they remain the biggest part of your legacy.

©Barbara Cashman, LLC  www.DenverElderLaw.org