Why Estate Planning is as Much Art as Science

By , October 18, 2009

I recently had a colleague contact me for some advice about a client. He didn’t need help with the legal aspects – redoing a trust – but he called because my parents grew up with the client and I know the whole family.

The situation was as unfortunate as it was typical. Client Cathy’s mom had retired to Florida, and though very self sufficient and active for a woman in her eighties, her mind was starting to slip, in particular when it came to sending gobs of money to the various cons and fake contests that prey on the elderly population of Ft. Lauderdale, and she was bouncing checks and overcharging her credit cards to do it. The family agreed that a conservatorship (called a limited guardianship in Florida) was not the best move, but that’s where the agreement ended. Cathy was willing to play a role in reviewing her mother’s finances, but thought her brother Joe in Florida would be better. Joe had the access and acuity, but didn’t want the responsibility. Sister Susan already had a power of attorney and was eager to take point as trustee of everything, but was a notorious meddler and bickerer and was liable to fight her mother tooth and nail over every indulgent expense. Rounding out the family tree was older brother Bert, who wanted to “put her in a home up North” to be safe.

Ultimately, the mom’s living trust, which contained the condo and her long-term investments, were put in a Medicaid planning trust with Susan as trustee, which was the bulk of the mother’s estate, but had minimal day-to-day responsibilities. Joe was given a power of attorney so he could open a new checking account for his mom’s pension and social security deposits, funnel a small allowance into the account she used, and buy her supermarket gift cards, while Cathy and her husband got the passwords so they could monitor her purchases and pay her bills online.

Cathy’s situation illustrates the realities of the impact that family dynamics can have on the crafting of estate plans. Planning for infirmity or drafting wills and trusts to maximize tax saving can be tricky, but they usually follow common, well-defined schemes. At the same time, the very meaning of “trust” can be a bit antithetical, as it is often a lack of trust that precipitates it. When deciding how to organize your estate, it is something you must consider carefully:

  • “Do I trust my daughter to give my diamond earrings to my granddaughter, or do I need to put that in my will?”
  • “Do I trust Bobby to use his college money wisely, or should I have his father hold it for him?”
    “Am I ready to give up control of my money, and can I trust my daughter to let me to still do what I want with it until I’m really unable?”

  • “If I die and my wife remarries, do I know that she’ll leave what I’ve earned for our children?”

Along with that, it’s important to consider the hurt feelings, anxiety, and jealousy that can occur when you make the decision to trust, not trust, or trust one person over another, and to decide whether it’s worth the risk to keep the peace. These are things I reccomend anyone consider when weighing the options as they document out their future, and it is something any competent estate planning attorney ought to ask you about.

While the law can be a science, blending it with a financial picture and family situation requires a bit of artistry. It’s also why my retainer agreement says that well-rounded estate planning does not necessarily guarantee a minimum tax burden…in bold, capital letters.

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