Avoid these five estate-planning mistakes to preserve family peace

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Some decisions can lead to terrible family rifts that never mend

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Family feuds get ratings. Just look at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

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But we’re more interested in promoting peace and harmony within families, especially when it comes to estate planning. This can often be more difficult when an estate is larger in value.

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Some estate planning decisions can lead to terrible family rifts that never recover. Here are some of the biggest mistakes we see.

Treating family members differently

Family members are different. They have different skill sets and different levels of responsibility and maturity. Some are kind and giving, others take and take. But if you want to create big family fights, leave your assets to your children in an unequal manner. Leave 45 per cent to Joe and 45 per cent to Susie, but 10 per cent to Bill.

People do this all the time, and they may have very valid reasons for doing so, but it is still a recipe for disaster. The best scenario is if you can comfortably tell Joe, Susie and Bill in advance why you are doing this. To do so without explanation will very likely lead to anger and jealousy between the children when they find out.

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Our general recommendation is to try to leave assets equally even if you don’t think it is fair.

Pass the family cottage to multiple children

You love the family cottage and your wish is to keep it in the family for your kids and grandkids to enjoy for decades to come. This can be a very dangerous part of the estate plan, because your children may not necessarily feel the same way about the cottage that you do. Or they may really like the cottage, but could use the cash instead.

It is rare for the next generation to be fully in line on this issue. Sometimes it is just geography: one child moves away and won’t use the cottage much. But even if they all like it, they might get into issues about repairs and renovations or scheduling who uses it when. Families can sometimes get along fine with a little distance, but spending too much time under the same roof can create problems.

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We generally recommend either selling the cottage in your later years or, if you keep the cottage, make sure it is openly discussed. Some solutions can include setting up life insurance set up to specifically pay taxes and perhaps one or two children, so that the remaining children can afford to keep the cottage. Open communication is key, but often a sale is the cleanest approach.

Don’t tell the kids anything about your money

You might think your money isn’t their business. They can find out your true net worth after you are dead. This approach is akin to lighting a bomb with a very long fuse.

One of the biggest problems here is that there may have been times in your children’s lives when they really needed financial help, but they don’t really need it any more. Children who now realize you could have easily helped during the difficult times, but thing not to do so can get angry.

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It is true that it isn’t the children’s or beneficiaries’ money to spend in advance. Yet there is often a sense of betrayal at keeping such a significant secret, as well as a sense of missed opportunities to do more during one’s life.

This silent approach also often eliminates any ability to understand what might be most meaningful to your children or beneficiaries. Maybe less so in terms of cash, but in terms of family heirlooms or property. Perhaps a piece of art or furniture was really important to two children, but there was never any discussion about it, so it is now completely left to them to fight over. This may sound like a small issue, but many families have split up forever over just this type of scenario.

If you sense a theme here, it is that communication is key. Don’t keep things so private that you avoid having the discussions that need to take place.

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Purposely or inadvertently leaving most or all assets to a new spouse

This sometimes happens by accident due to poor planning around ownership titles, lack of pre-nuptial agreements or the unintended naming of beneficiaries on investment accounts or life insurance. Other times, it is meant to hurt the children … and it will. The hurt can certainly go both ways and is often a major issue when a spouse is not fairly treated.

Either way, you want to be extra careful in these situations to first understand what you hope to accomplish, and then make sure your documents are aligned to achieve this.

Significant charitable giving

Of course, you are more than entitled to give all your money to charity, but if it isn’t discussed with your so-called traditional beneficiaries, there can be fights with the charity that can last a long time. There have been cases where intended charitable gifts have been overturned because it wasn’t deemed fair to the other beneficiaries.

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An old colleague referred to wills as the last words a parent says to a child. If that message leads to questions or misunderstandings, a child will sometimes think it means a parent didn’t really love them, or loved them less than others. This is the foundation of many family fights.

My best advice is to communicate what you are doing and why, and to do so while you can still explain your rationale to your family. If it feels very difficult to do, then imagine the reaction when you are not there.

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Put another way, if it seems too difficult to have this discussion now, maybe that is the push to make some changes to your estate plan to make it easier on those left behind.

Ted Rechtshaffen, MBA, CFP, CIM, is president and wealth adviser at TriDelta Financiala boutique wealth management firm focusing on investment counseling and high-net-worth financial planning. You can contact him directly at tedr@tridelta.ca.

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