For many of us, the past year has shown how families can provide great comfort and resources when challenged with difficult times. This article looks at how families can approach the inevitable challenges as parents grow old and adult children assume very different, and often unexpected, roles. Proper thought and planning, with the family relationship being the focus of the plan, can maintain life-long relationships that will provide future generations with more than financial security.
The shifting roles and burdens of decision-making as parents age creates stressful situations for all involved. Parents can minimize conflict between adult children by involving them in the creation of a power of attorney and a medical directive. A durable power of attorney permits a designated person to sign checks, manage credit, and conduct business on behalf of another. An advanced directive (including a medical power of attorney and living will) provides guidance and creates authority to make medical decisions if the parent is unable to make them independently.
The power of attorney and advanced directives may help to keep the peace among siblings when the parents are unable to make legal or medical decisions. They usually prevent the necessity of going to court to have one child, or another person, appointed to make these decisions. Families have a very difficult time maintaining unity when, during a time of crisis, they must involve the legal institutions to select which child is best situated to perform these roles.
Another way to lessen conflict between adult children is for parents to create a comprehensive estate plan to designate beneficiaries for investment or bank accounts, deed real property, draft a will, or create a trust. For many parents, the focus of their estate plan is to avoid paying taxes. This becomes more important and challenging as state and federal laws change from time to time.
However, simply creating the documents and working to minimize tax consequences is not enough. Too often parents of adult children make decisions in private meetings with their attorneys without informing their children until the documents are needed. Other parents may inform the family but fail to discuss plans in sufficient depth to determine how those decisions could impact harmony within the family.
There is a better way. To minimize the potential disagreement, many families engage a mediator trained in elder mediation. During family meetings, participants reach a consensus on who may best accept the duties of the legal and medical power of attorney. Parents may also outline the beneficiaries, wills, and trusts they are considering and consider input from their beneficiaries. By communicating this information in advance, these meetings prevent an additional shock following a parents’ passing. It may also permit the parent to consider the adult childrens’ concerns when constructing these essential documents.
With planning, parents’ love can expand beyond their own life to create an opportunity for their children and grandchildren to enjoy not only a financial legacy, but also a legacy of healthy and sustaining relationships.
In working to maintain harmony within the family when creating an estate plan or power of attorney, a few dos and don’ts provide guidance:
- Don’t ignore the necessity of executing a power of attorney, medical directive and an estate plan. Without these documents the family must go to court to establish guardianship or conservatorship, often increasing potential conflict among family members.
- Don’t rely on forms from the internet or an office supply store. Documents that do not meet the requirements of your state or the needs of your family may wind up being costly and damaging to your family.
- Don’t focus on taxes to the exclusion of relationships. Including your family in the decision making process and creating plans to meet everyone’s needs will reduce the potential for conflict.
- Do retain authority over making decisions about your estate plan and power of attorney, but include anyone who is impacted in a collaborative and healthy way. Allow them to participate in discussions to address disagreements in a suitable environment.
- Do consider working with a mediator, a family therapist, or a facilitator to help your family reach mutual understandings before having documents professionally prepared.
- Do discuss long and short-term plans of each family member before deciding how to structure an inheritance, create a trust, or a will. Looking at each family member’s long and short time desires and needs will minimize future conflict.
- Do include provisions in all documents, as much as possible, to require beneficiaries to participate in mediation prior to engaging in legal action to resolve conflicts and provide for the costs to be paid by the estate, or equally between parties.
About the Author: Brenda Waugh, MA JD, is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. A graduate of the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, and Eastern Mennonite University, she has conducted workshops throughout the United States and in Canada and has published articles in periodicals and legal journals in the area of alternative dispute resolution. Web: BrendaWaugh.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 304-728-3660 or 540-501-5501.By Brenda Waugh