My wife and I are beginning to put together our estate plan, and we’ve come to an interesting conclusion. We don’t want to pass any of our money onto our adult children. They’re not bad people, and they’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just that we think our money can serve a bigger and better purpose in our community. Is there anything wrong with not leaving an estate for your children?
– Robert, Columbus, Ohio.
You can do whatever you want with your money and not feel bad about it. Full stop.
You’ve hit on a topic about which I happen to be very opinionated. Your money is your money. My parents and my in-laws’ money is theirs, and I don’t possess an ounce of ownership of it.
I’ve had the opportunity to witness hundreds of wealth transfers over the past 20 or so years. Some have gone smoothly, and some have gone horribly wrong. I’ve seen seemingly simple situations get butchered with poor planning, and I’ve seen horrendously complicated situations resolved without a hitch.
To help you understand how to execute your wishes cleanly, I want to show you how these situations usually go off the rails.
The ugliest estate settlements I’ve seen involve two specific problems: The first is poor communication, and the second is outdated wishes.
Before we go much further, it’s important for you to know I’m not giving you legal advice. Please consult a licensed attorney to help you with the specifics.
What I’ve learned over the years is money and family get messy when clear expectations and appropriate communication are lacking.
For instance, let’s assume you’ve had a very lucrative career and everyone knows you're loaded, including your presumed heirs. If you never talk about your desires for your estate, then your family and friends will probably fill in the blanks. Does this make them bad? Of course not. In some cases, your heirs will make financial planning decisions based on what you haven’t told them. They may view your silence as a polite discreteness.
Frankly, I don’t like to see people make financial planning decisions based on limited knowledge of a loved one’s finances and wishes for those finances. But it’s as common as the involuntary “bless you” after a sneeze.
The next element which complicates this matter is the natural progression of your values and wishes for your money. What seems like a good idea for your money today might not feel that way 20 years from now. And if your change in plans isn’t reflected in your estate documentation, chaos will ensue. You must walk a thin line between a commitment to your wishes and constant monitoring of the conditions around you.
If you want to leave your assets to someone other than your family, begin to communicate that plan now. I know it’s easier to let people sort out their feelings after you’re long gone, but fleshing out your plan with loved ones will allow you to make them part of the process. You will, of course, want to make sure you leave funds to pay for your final expenses, and arguably a token of your appreciation for sorting out your affairs. You certainly don’t want to burden them financially while they’re grieving.
Now for the trickiest part: If your reality or your kids’ reality changes, you may want to adjust your estate plan. Maybe you think your adult children don't need any money because they’re on solid ground, but a turn of fortune or health could leave them in a lurch. In that case, you can make the appropriate changes to your estate plan.
As you’ve learned throughout life, assumptions are bad. Don’t assume your children know your plans. Talk to them directly about what you're thinking, and help them understand it.
You don’t owe them money, but you certainly owe them honesty.