The Importance of the Family Meeting

The Importance of the Family Meeting

When Gloria Vanderbilt, the great-great-granddaughter of a railroad tycoon with significant wealth, passed away this summer at age 95, the subject of her fortune and the family drama of her childhood was brought up in every article I read. While I was certainly aware of these sad details of her early life, as a child of the ‘70s, she was more a part of my consciousness as the designer of the jeans I once loved. In current times, she was also well known as the mom of CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  It was Anderson himself who addressed the issue of his inheritance saying, “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund.” Anderson said he was grateful for this. He doesn’t feel he would have had the motivation to make it on his own had he known his mother did in fact leave nearly everything she had to him.

While it may be for the best of intentions that parents like Gloria decide not to share with their children what will happen when they pass away, there are benefits to communicating at least the basics of your estate plan during your lifetime. This is especially true if only one of your children has been chosen to act as trustee. And it can be critically important if you are passing assets to your children in an unequal way. For example, leaving assets to some children in trust and distributed to others outright could lead to conflict – and potential lawsuits – among siblings. Sharing in your own words your intentions and explaining your decisions may serve to reduce the confusion and conflict among your heirs once you’re gone.

These discussions can be accomplished in a family meeting or a series of family meetings. While it might seem ideal to simply start sharing while everyone is gathered around the Thanksgiving table, it would be better to get together in a neutral setting and stick to an agenda. This will help keep everyone on track and understand that this is a formal meeting and not a free-for-all conversation. Meeting at the office of your financial advisor or attorney could be doubly beneficial if you’d like them to play a role in the family meeting by communicating the high-level structure of your estate plan. This could also be an opportunity for your children to meet your financial team and the folks they will be working with when it is time to settle your estate.

While there is no perfect recipe for a family meeting, some agenda items to consider are:

  • Letting your children know how to treat each other after your passing
  • Communicating the goals of your estate plan
  • Outlining what you plan to pass to children and grandchildren and/or to charity
  • Sharing some details about the size of your estate
  • Explaining the estate settlement process and timeline for distributions
  • Introducing your financial team either in person or providing contact information
  • Providing a forum for participants to ask questions and have them answered

If you’ve always had an open dialogue with your children about finances, you may not feel there is much left to say before you pass away. Even so, holding a family meeting provides an opportunity to clearly communicate your wishes once again – and to everyone at the same time – hopefully ensuring that the estate plans you put in place are ultimately successful.

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