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Part of my job as an elder law and estate planning attorney is to help my clients make important decisions about what will happen to their assets, and who in their lives will accept the challenges of helping my clients with their finances and health care matters, both while they are living and after they have passed away.
In the course of those discussions, I often have the occasion to point out to my clients and their families how something is happening that is cause for thanksgiving. These occasions are not always immediately obvious to everyone involved, so let me share the top three with you … plus one more.
“Thank you for the wonderful gift”
One of the questions I get asked all of the time is: “If I leave my kids something in my Will, do they have to pay tax on it?” A twist on that comes from the future beneficiaries: “If I inherit that asset, will I have to pay tax?” The actual answer depends of course on the type of asset being passed on, but in most cases my answer is that the only obligation the recipient has is to say thank you.
Other than for a spouse (and even then there are limits), there is no law anywhere that says that your parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle/sibling must include you in their estate plan. There is no right to receive an inheritance, no absolute entitlement to anything. Which means that if any of your family members do include you in their plan, they have done a really nice thing for you. In many cases, you will not find out about the gift until your loved one has passed away, and sadly at that point you will no longer be able to thank them in person. Maybe you show your thanks by paying it forward. At minimum, this is an occasion to take a few minutes to honor your loved one’s memory and to send a silent “thank you” their way.
“Thank you for including me”
The typical estate plan provides for one’s spouse if living, then for one’s children (if any), and then down to the grandchildren’s generation if any of the children have predeceased the parents. The typical estate plan does not include the in-laws. This doesn’t mean that the parents don’t love their children-in-law. It just means that they are keeping their assets in the blood line. In my experience, daughters/sons-in-law are typically included in a parent’s estate plan only if their child has predeceased the parents, has been in a longstanding marriage, and has not had any children, and even then, it is rare that the parent gives the in-law the full amount of the share that would have passed to the son or daughter if living.
Which means that when a parent decides to include a daughter/son-in-law as a beneficiary in a Will or Trust, the parent has done something very special. As above, if you are privileged to have a mother/father-in-law who has included you as a beneficiary in their plan, that is absolutely an occasion to say thank you.
“Thank you for not picking me!”
A person creating an estate plan has many jobs to bestow: attorney-in-fact to handle finances, health care agent to make health care decisions, maybe a trustee to manage trust assets, and a “personal representative” (the job formerly known as “executor”) to handle a probate estate. And just to be safe, we want a back up person for each of those jobs in case the first choice person is unable or unwilling to serve. In selecting the right people for each job, we want to look at each candidate’s talents and strengths. The oldest child is not necessarily the best choice just because he/she is the oldest.
In many cases, we run out of jobs before we run out of candidates. Or, for various reasons, a family member may just not be right for any of the jobs. But just like on the playground when someone is selected last for a team … or not selected at all … this often results in hurt feelings by the people who feel that they have somehow been left out of the game. Decades-old family rivalries can emerge (“I knew she loved you more!”) … at least as long as the choices are only words on a piece of paper. Once the time comes when the sleeves get pushed up and the hard work of those jobs starts, the people who were chosen often find themselves wondering what the heck they agreed to, and the ones who did not get picked discover they are thrilled that someone else has to deal with the challenges. I counsel my clients to give their kids the heads up so there will be no surprises down the line, but to let the ones not chosen know that ultimately they will be on their knees giving thanks for not being chosen.
“Thank you for picking me”
Blood, sweat, and tears aside, it is an honor to be picked for the hard jobs, and an occasion to say thank you. In that spirit, we at The Shore Law Firm thank you for the honor of choosing us to guide you and your family through the challenges of the aging process.