Estate Planning for those you love can dramatically alter the course of your family for generations. In his Last Will and Testament of 1799, George Washington, laid out a clear vision for his legacy. He bequeathed the “use, profit, and benefit” of his whole estate to his “dearly beloved wife Martha Washington.” He also forgave the debts of many of his family members, financed the establishment of a school for orphans, earmarked stock for what is now Washington and Lee University and made arrangements to care for others dear to him.
Vowing, “I have set my hand and Seal,” Washington used his Will to provide for the people he loved, settle unfinished business, and assist the less fortunate. More than 200 years later, Washington’s estate plan retains surprising currency. In the modern era, family, friends, and philanthropy remain the dominant pillars of our own last intentions.
Washington indicated that his deliberations were not easy. He relayed that his will’s creation “occupied many of my leisure hours to digest.” At more than 5,500 words—the equivalent of 9 single-spaced pages—it is impressive in its scale and specificity.
Our own estate planning may not require the same degree of labor or intensity. However, we can glean an important lesson from Washington. His writing was eminently personal; it captured his precise situation at the time and laid out his future vision.
Ideally, your own estate plan should reflect that same personalization. While the words “Last Will and Testament” sound imposing, it is important to recognize that estate planning is not limited to a single legal document. A good estate plan is profoundly human in its touch points, reflecting the dynamics and needs of the people you love and the causes you cherish.
In this article, I will examine three foundations of estate planning—communication, clarity, and customization. By considering these aspects in more detail, my hope is that you, like Washington, can set your own “hand and seal” to effectively relay your wishes, reassure your loved ones, and cement your lasting legacy.
Communication: Key to Your Peace of Mind
Much has been written about estate planning. There are many guides that detail practical steps that you, your spouse, and your heirs can address in order to reduce stress, streamline organization, and facilitate the smooth transmission of assets. I am wholehearted in espousing these frameworks. They rightly document the “nuts and bolts” that you, your financial advisor, and your trust and estate attorney should perform for the smooth functioning of your estate.
For many people, however, there is a parallel need that is just as significant: active communication with your spouse, children, or heirs.
An estate plan is only as good as its agents. It is important for both spouses to have a good working knowledge of a family’s intentions. Husbands and wives should both be involved in drafting final documents to avoid unforeseen complications during the most vulnerable of times. It is also wise for both spouses to be comfortable with a family’s financial advisor, attorney, and accountant, as these relationships will be integral to unwinding the complexity and administrative challenges that can accompany the execution of even the most organized estate.
Moreover, communicating the estate plan to children is essential. While our culture tends to put off these discussions, it is important to transcend any short-term hesitancy for the more lasting benefit of having a clear plan in place.
Admittedly, families have distinctive dynamics. Not every spouse is going to take a keen interest in estate planning. Not every child will want to preview the detailed disposition of assets. In this case, it’s important to have a basic protocol is in place. For some families, that may boil down to, “Call the Financial Advisor at this number.” Your peace of mind can hinge on that basic directive, so it’s a good idea to cover that fundamental first action as soon as possible and then move on to the itemized priorities of your estate-planning checklist.
Clarity: Providing a Deeper Understanding of Your Intent
When you think of estate planning, you probably think of your Last Will and Testament. However, a will may not fully convey the spirit and subtlety of your intentions.
You may want to consider the role of a “Personal Statement of Intent” or a “Letter of Wishes” within your own legacy design. This document works in tandem with your will to convey a deeper level of personalization—and possibly explanation—for your heirs. This private document is non-binding. Whereas a will may become a publicly registered document under the probate laws, a Personal Statement of Intent will be accessible only to the people you stipulate—typically your executor, trustee, and heirs.
A Personal Statement of Intent can be useful in clarifying the rationale behind the formal provisions of your will. If you divided your estate inequitably, for example, your Personal Statement can be used to rectify the perception that you are favoring one heir over another. You can also use a Personal Statement of Intent to defuse possible guilt over the disposition of your assets. If you are bequeathing long-held company stock, for example, you may want to address your heirs’ hesitancy to sell those shares. Finally, a Personal Statement can be valuable in conveying your hopes and aspirations for your loved ones in ways that don’t fit the traditional parameters of a will. For example, you may suggest that your family retain your vacation home or ranch for a period of years, using it as a place to convene multiple generations for family reunions. Or you may use a Personal Statement to outline the preferred care of a beloved family pet.
Katherine C. Akinc, of counsel at Brink Bennett Flaherty Golden in Austin, explains that a Personal Statement of Intent can be an effective means of conveying a benefactor’s rationale: “Most people have thoughtful, well-reasoned explanations behind the division and distribution of their estates. However, if such explanations are not communicated, beneficiaries often leap to the worst conclusions for why mom gifted a larger estate share to one child over another, or why property was left in trust rather than outright.”
While not everyone needs a Personal Statement of Intent, families with nontraditional structures or inequitable distributions may benefit from the clarity and comfort they can provide. Their innate flexibility and adaptability provide benefactors with a timely and deeply personalized vehicle to relay the spirit and mindset behind a benefactor’s final intentions. Your estate planning attorney can assist you with the preparation of this statement and ensure that it functions smoothly within your overall estate-planning framework.
Customization: Honoring the Singularity of Your Intentions
A final consideration in your estate planning should be the unique nature of your legacy. Both in terms of your assets and intentions, the distinctive nature of your circumstances should be honored, in death as in life. Your wealth, family dynamics, and philanthropic interests are uniquely yours. It is important to work with an Advisor who appreciates the intricacies of your financial picture, as well as the subtleties of your vision and values.
When you partner with an advisor who is a fiduciary, you are working with someone who is legally bound to pursue the long-term best interests of your family. During critical crossroads, sometimes the wisest action is to forestall large-scale changes. For example, a surviving spouse will likely have different cash-flow needs following the death of his or her spouse. A thoughtful financial advisor will be sensitive to that evolving change, possibly refining a client’s portfolio allocations over time, but showing due restraint in implementing any changes. In estate planning, as in other aspects of your wealth, your Financial Advisor should act as a critical extension of you, your wishes, and your intentions, tending to your vision with care and sensitivity.
As you think about your own estate planning needs, consider the foundational values of communication, clarity, and customization within your own legacy design. Building on this foundation, you can have the satisfaction of “setting your hand and seal” to reassure your heirs, convey your final wishes, and provide comfort and consolation to the people you love.
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