A Lesson from Robin Williams: Having “The Conversation”

One way in which you can minimize fighting amongst your family after you’re gone is by having “The Conversation” before you go…

Does Your Family Have Trust Issues Like Robin Williams?

After his death last year, it appeared that Robin Williams did everything right when it came to estate planning. The bulk of his wealth was transferred through well-thought-out (and private) trusts that distributed his belongings to his three children while also providing for his current wife, so she could stay in the house they shared. And yet, his third wife and his three children still got involved in a court case with each other. So what happened? And what can we learn from this situation?

Effective Estate Planning Anticipates Emotions Will Run High

The first thing people should know is that all bets are off when someone dies. In the extremely emotional  environment of grief and loss, even the best families experience some stress and disagreement. It’s just hard to avoid. Every estate planning attorney could fill a book with unbelievable real life stories about this very thing.

Effective estate planning attorneys work hard to mitigate this risk and prevent these issues from tearing families apart. And that’s where “The Conversation” and the “Special Stuff List” come in. Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at two important actions you can take to minimize fighting in your family.

“The Conversation”

Just like the birds and the bees talk you once had with your kids when they were younger, this next conversation can bring up almost as much anxiety. Many times it’s “easier” to start a conversation about inheritance and estate planning during family gatherings or holiday get-togethers. I know. I know. That sounds like a real downer of a conversation for a family event, but let me assure you, it will be a lot less unpleasant than what your family will experience after you’re gone if you DON’T have “The Conversation” with them.

Here are 5 tips for talking about inheritance:

1. Share your own reasons or motives for bringing up the issue. Then try to clearly convey what values are really important to you. What’s important to accomplish with your assets after your death? What does fair mean to you? What does it look like? What items do you think have special meaning? What stories about those items need to be written down and shared with your family?

2. Ask “what if” questions to find out how your family feels about certain scenarios. “What if Mom had to go in a nursing home and I was already gone? Would you want to keep the house? What would you do with the stuff in the house?” Or “what if Mom and I downsized. What would you want us to keep?”

3. Clearly convey choices you’ve already made, like who is in charge of making decisions after you’re gone (or incapacitated). For example, if your will says that the children should share your estate 50/50, then one child may understand that to mean keeping the house and sharing it. The other child may see it as an opportunity to sell the house and get some money. Bam. Now you have a big fight and your children never speak to each other again. (This is a TRUE story.) It is vitally important to talk to your kids about how you want things done before you’re gone (and then make sure to tie it down legally, as well.)

4. Look for natural opportunities to talk about the issue. Sometimes the death of a neighbor or a friend can provide better timing for this conversation. Celebrity deaths like Robin Williams can also present good times to bring up the topic, especially if their estate is presenting problems you would like to avoid.

5. Listen. Remember that listening is an important part of communication and any conversation. Take time to listen to your family’s perspective and opinion throughout the course of “The Conversation.”

Having “The Conversation,” along with detailed and effective legal planning will go a long way in avoiding the problems that Robin Williams’ family is now having. Read more tips on having “The Conversation” here.

In our next blog post we’ll talk about creating your “Special Stuff List.” This special list further clarifies your wishes and intentions with regards to certain special pieces of property. (Like your paperweight collection or the antique shotguns you inherited from your grandfather.)

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to call us at 217-726-9200. We will be more than happy to help you in any way possible.