Having ‘That’ Conversation: Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning

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Some common topics that come up during family discussions—like where to plan your next family vacation, memories from childhood or deciding who will host the next family dinner night—are typically light and breezy. On the flip side, however, conversations surrounding wills, trusts and estate planning likely aren't among those so easily had discussions.

In fact, things have the potential to get pretty awkward and even contentious, especially if not approached with thought and intention.

To learn more about navigating having that conversation with family members, we tapped the expertise of Rose Coonen, Attorney at Coonen Law, PLLC.

According to Coonen, talking about estate planning can be difficult for some families because it means talking about and facing their own mortality or addressing some areas of potential conflict within the family.

"If families can keep it in mind that the goal of planning is to take care of their families and that planning can actually avoid conflict, it can help get them started," Coonen explained. "It might be a difficult or awkward subject to talk about but once conversations happen, it can be a huge relief to loved ones to know that everything is taken care of and it can alleviate some anxiety and worries that a family might have in making a wrong decision."

Without having those conversations, Coonen says, a family may not know how best to care for a loved one if they become incapacitated or what their wishes are upon their death.

So, how do you address potential conflicts or disagreements among family members? Don't let your feelings or resentment build up inside. Instead, lead with empathy, patience and focus your efforts on having measured calm, productive and open-minded conversations.

"When there is potential conflict or disagreement among family members, we want to start with conversations to see if we can resolve any disagreements," Coonen advised, noting that sometimes means having family meetings and laying out what the estate plan is to ensure the family knows and understands what will happen when their loved one passes away. "If this isn't possible or if there is a risk of potential conflict after someone passes away, we can address these family dynamics in the estate plan by spelling things out in clear and precise terms, addressing the potential conflict and hopefully reducing or eliminating any actual conflict or court battles."

When appropriate, grandparents, parents and relatives should be open with those set to inherit any assets about having their wishes met, in addition to being clear about who is inheriting what and how. Hiding any inheritances will likely cause emotional harm in the long run, not helping anyone involved.

If a family member doesn't have any type of will, trust or other estate planning documents, gently encourage them to take the steps to create one and do your own research on what steps they'll need to take and any associated costs. You could even go through the process of establishing or updating your own documents alongside them, if it helps.

If you're met with a refusal, consider reminding them that having their affairs in order:

  • Gives them the power. Not only are family members able to establish their wishes, appoint an executor and name beneficiaries, they can also explicitly name who will not be one.
  • Minimizes confusion and stress for loved ones during what will likely be a highly emotional time.

While you cannot force anyone to have a will, having open discussions and listening to concerns is a great place to start.

Coonen emphasizes that any estate plan should be reviewed at least every two years, if not more often.

"If there are any marriages, divorces, births, deaths in the family or changes in assets, the plan should be reviewed to make sure it still does what they want it to do," Coonen said. "Periodically, laws will change so we want to make sure a plan stays up to date and aligned with the client's current wishes. Over time, we see that client's wishes change, especially with regard to who they want in charge of their estate or even with regard to their end of life wishes. Estate plans should be updated to reflect those changes."

Remember: Estate planning should be viewed as more than a one-and-done process. It may require guidance from trusted advisors, like Coonen, to ensure your plan works as it's supposed to, when it's supposed to.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Apr/May '24 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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