A will is your last communication with your family. Many of us are uncomfortable planning for our death, but the chaos, confusion and potential for conflict in families where there is no will should offset your discomfort. A properly written will explains how you want your assets distributed.
I would argue it is equally important to explain why. The best way to communicate your intentions is to have a conversation with your family explaining your priorities. Even American billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffet agrees. “Once the kids are of a certain age, they should be participants in the will. Your children are going to read the will someday. It’s crazy for them to read it after you’re dead for the first time. You’re not in a position to answer questions.” (The Globe and Mail, May 19, 2013).
There are many sad examples of what happens when this face-to-face conversation doesn’t happen, and the details are left to the secrecy of a will. “Ken” didn’t have much of a relationship with his father after his parents divorced. His father moved away and remarried. He later notified Ken that he had been named as executor. When his father passed, Ken dutifully fulfilled his role as executor, received his inheritance and transferred the majority of his father’s estate to his stepmother.
Several years later, Ken received another call saying his stepmom had been diagnosed with dementia, and he was her representative for all health care decisions. The couple had assumed the father would outlive the stepmom, so there would be no need to inform Ken. But they were wrong. Ken is currently making health care and final decisions for a woman he hardly knows and with whom he had never had a relationship. To further exacerbate the situation, the stepmom is estranged from her children, and she didn’t prepare a will. When she dies, her estate will automatically go to her next of kin. Ken is frustrated and regrets not having a conversation with his father and stepmom to clarify both the how and why of their intentions.
Creating a plan is just an important first step. We need to communicate that plan to all stakeholders, too. Your executor and your representative for incapacity or power of attorney have a significant responsibility, and you owe it to your loved ones to include them in your planning. MFC consultants often hear from people who wish they had been more involved in those important decisions.
“John” updated his will and incapacity documents naming his son as executor and his sister as representative for incapacity. In his will, John planned to give his house to his son, Hector, the cottage to his daughter, Romy, and the remaining cash to his grandchildren. Then John’s health declined and he was diagnosed with dementia. John’s sister, Livia, stepped into her role managing his health care and financial decisions. She was responsible for maintaining the house and finding renters. With John incapacitated, Livia felt it was best to sell the house and to have the proceeds deposited into John’s bank account. After John passed, Hector assumed his role as executor and soon realized the disappointing situation. Romy received the cottage, the grandchildren received the cash, but Hector received nothing because the house had been sold. John’s intentions had never been communicated.
In both scenarios, communication and discussion may have helped the family carry out the wishes of the deceased. The size of your assets is not significant. If you have something to give away at death, you have wealth. This process can be intimidating, but MFC can assist you along this journey.
Kevin Davidson is a stewardship consultant at Mennonite Foundation of Canada, serving generous people in Alberta. For more information on generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca.