Estate Planning for the Not-Ready

I’ve worked with a lot of families and their estate plans. And one of the most painful things to see in estate planning is adult children estranged from their parents. Of course, there are as many reasons for this as there are incidents of it.

Not all such situations are redeemable. But surely some are.

I believe there is hope for many families in which children and parents are estranged from one another. I can’t recall ever talking to the parents, in such a situation, who wouldn’t pay almost any price to see the relationship healed, at least to some degree.

So, see if any of the following ideas seem to apply to your situation if you have an estrangement between parent and child.

Bring in a third party. Well this could be the hardest part, but remember, I’m addressing this to a parent who has said, “I would pay almost any price to restore this relationship.”

Find either a single individual, or maybe even a small team, to come together and act as a mediator between you and your adult child. They can listen to you and communicate your desire to restore the relationship. And they can listen to your child and hear the reasons why they feel estranged from you.

Time doesn’t permit me to deal with this stage in significant depth. But understand that if this stage is to be successful, you’re going to need a thick skin, a tender heart and a lot of patience. You’re going to need to listen a lot more than you talk.

Communicate and educate, but don’t manipulate. If step one is successful to any degree, then you can move on to the stage of communicating your desire to include them in your estate plans. They may have assumed you’ve already written them out of the will (and maybe you have).

But here your third party’s skill as a communicator is going to be tested, for she’s going to have to communicate your desire to include them in your estate (or inheritance) planning, but with a demonstrated level of responsible behavior on the child’s part. But how do you observe such responsible behavior if you’re dead and gone? Well you do that ahead of time…

Take it a step at a time. Rather than wait to drop the entire inheritance on them in one fell swoop (say after you’re gone), why not give a portion of it, every year along the way? The tax code allows anyone to give up to $15,000 a year to anyone else (including their estranged children). Two parents could combine their gifts for a total of $30,000 in a year.

Well, if you gift money every year, make sure that you both agree that this money this gifting is really kind of a test run, to be sure both parent and child agree that the money is being used wisely.

Now, I suggest that here you define success very, very broadly. Do not try to over-control their behavior. As long as they don’t just blow the money on frivolous purchases, declare victory and move on.

Hope for progress, but don’t demand perfection. You didn’t get where you are overnight, and a cute little plan like this isn’t going to suddenly turn you into the Brady Bunch. There’s going to be setbacks and sharp words and arguments and even foolish decisions.

But if you’ll take the long view, you can be satisfied with overall progress (relationally and financially), without holding your child to some impossible standard of perfection.

Move from trust to trust. It’s a funny thing how legal language works. If we really don’t trust someone to handle their finances well, we put the money for them in a …trust.

With no relationship and no demonstrated level of responsibility, most parents who want to leave an estranged child something will use this tool called a trust – it’s a legal device to hold money and property on behalf of someone else. It imposes responsibility and competence externally, even if the beneficiary (in this case the estranged child) seems to have neither responsibility or competence.

But if the long process of repairing the relationship and progressively re-laying a foundation of demonstrated responsibility towards one another succeeds, well then wealthy parents can move from total dependence on a legal trust, to greater and greater dependence on relational trust.

Rebuilding your relationship with your child is going to take the kind of wealth that money just can’t buy.

Offering you Wisdom on Wealth, I’m Byron Moore.

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