Understanding Your Estate Planning Goals

estate planningMany of the families I have worked with have unwritten rules about what their true north fundamental values are, and when entering into a family through marriage, it is important to look at what those are, what the undercurrents are and how they mesh with the entering spouse’s value system. To create a sustainable legacy the values must mesh so that when shocks (good or bad) come to the system, the system becomes stronger because it has built in mechanisms to sustain those shocks.

When a family does not have a clear vision of its own true north, or when that vision is clouded or destroyed, chaos happens. One family I have worked with has an unwritten rule that in-laws will never really be part of the family. The daughter-in-law never understood that rule (although all the warning signs were there) and after a lavish wedding was hurt and surprised that she was not treated better by the parents.

Four children and ten years later she sued the son for divorce, and it is one of the ugliest divorces I have ever seen, with continuous litigation in which the parents have had to participate through depositions and discovery. This is a wealthy family, but the root of the disagreement has nothing to do with money and everything to do with the family value that excludes in-laws. The son never stood up to his parents and allowed the emotional abuse of his wife to continue for a very long time.

Observing this from the sidelines it is interesting to note that if the daughter-in-law had understood the family code and accepted that she was not going to change it and gone in knowingly, her surprise and resentment could have been mitigated. If her husband had stood up to his parents, that may have helped. If they had strengthened their bond through counseling, that may have helped. If husband and wife had had a frank discussion with the parents, that may have helped. None of that happened and chaos ensued.

In another family I worked with, the father, patriarch of the family and founder of a very successful business, was diagnosed with cancer in his 50’s and knew that the cancer was a death sentence. His 25-year-old son was working in the business with him, and the father knew he was not ready to take the helm. We decided to have a very frank discussion with the family so that the family and his son could hear from the father himself what mattered. The family had been under the impression that the prime value in the family was working hard and making a successful business. That was true, but the father’s final illness put on the table the true value – family first, business second. In a very poignant discussion three months before the father died, he gathered his family (and me) and told his son that he did not want the legacy of the business to be his son’s legacy, that he knew his son was not quite ready, that he would fight for his life as long as he could but that death was inevitable. He gave his son permission to try to run the business (even if he failed), shrink the business, hire others, sell the business or do whatever else was prudent. (As will be discussed in the next chapter the financial security of his wife had already been handled by another mechanism so the son did not have the additional concern of knowing that any business risk impacted his mother’s financial security).

The meeting was one of the most powerful discussions I have ever witnessed. There were a lot of tears. The father died. The son decided to try to continue his father’s legacy and fifteen years later the business is very successful and the family is intact. What is most impressive to me is the fact that in the final inning the father had the courage to have this discussion and made it clear to all that he was giving permission for the son to make the decisions, even if that meant the business failed. It was one of the clearest examples of family first I have ever had the privilege to observe.

Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released her new book, “It’s More Than Money, Protect Your Legacy” available at Amazon.com. To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit, http://www.patriciaannino.com.

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