All of us have family. Whether it is our spouse, children, extended family, or even our pets. The question is, what does estate planning have to do with family?  Everything!  Over the past 25 years I have been asking my clients what they want their estate plans to accomplish.  The number one answer I receive is, “Dave, I want stay in control.”  The second issue I hear is, “I don’t want to become a burden to my loved ones,” and third is, “I want to keep it simple.”  The reality is, the only way to stay in control and keep your estate planning simple is to actually do it now, while you are healthy.  And the only way to not become a burden to your family is to ensure your planning provides your wishes for your care so your loved ones don’t have to make life altering decisions for you in matters they ultimately didn’t know what you wanted.

As I look back over my many years of practice, the clients that stand out most to me are the children of clients who had to make the decision of whether to “plug” mom or dad in to life support and they didn’t know what mom or dad wanted.  While something as simple as this is often believed to be accomplished by a healthcare proxy, most healthcare proxies fall short in providing the specific guidance to your loved ones in those “life and death situations”.  What is essential to know is most documents, like a Will, healthcare proxy and power of attorney, grant a lot of legal authority but rarely provide any instruction as to how to carry out that authority.  This destroys families.  Many conversations on estate planning center around whether one needs a trust and whether it should be revocable or irrevocable. The predominant issue that destroys families is having to make healthcare decisions (healthcare proxy) and legal and financial decisions (power of attorney) without knowing mom and dad’s wishes. In most cases, families don’t fight over the money, they fight over what mom and dad wanted. The kids want to be sure they carry out your wishes, but they have different ideas of what your wishes are. Healthcare proxies and powers of attorney grant legal authority to those you choose to make health care, legal and financial decisions for you, but they generally do not provide instructions on how to use that authority, which often leads to family controversy and frustration.

Finally, a trust, when properly done, can be used as your instructions to your family members and can lead to the granting of authority and the proper instructions to loved ones of how to use it; that is, to ensure what you want to have happen actually occurs when you are not there to do it yourself.  Some of the “boiler plate” trusts and other documents used by lawyers will address some of the issues, but rarely address the more difficult issues that lead to the destruction of families. If you really want to protect your family, you’re the only one who can do it.  But first you have to put your own oxygen mask on and get educated on the options you have available and how to ensure your children know your instructions. This ensures there is no fighting when you are gone, and, more importantly, no heartbreak because one of your loved ones had to make decisions whether you live or die, without knowing what your wishes were.  Next time you wonder what estate planning is all about, it’s simple, it’s all about family!