Avoid kerfuffles, start estate planning early

David MoonBlog

For almost a week, the adult children of 82-year-old Casey Kasem feared that their estranged stepmother had kidnapped the legendary disc jockey and long-time host of the American Top 40 radio show.

Kidnapping is not a great estate plan.

When I started my investment firm 20 years ago I naively thought this business was about reading annual reports and picking stocks. It is, but it is so much more.

The three most intimate things in a person’s life are their spirituality, sexuality and money. And people will more quickly tell you what they think about God and who they’re sleeping with before they will show you their tax return.

But once someone trusts us with their money, they usually end up trusting us for things we once never expected.

Years ago a group of adult children wanted us to attend an “intervention” they were planning for their widowed 80-year-old father. The kids were concerned about the amount of money he was spending on his new 26-year-old girlfriend. This was, in the kids’ opinion, evidence of his senility.

At the ambush meeting, the older gentleman explained to his children and me, “David, I know this girl is a gold-digger, but she comes and checks on me every day. She sits on the sofa with me and holds my hand while we watch baseball. She probably hates Wright’s Cafeteria, but she acts like it’s the nicest place in the world when we go for catfish every Friday.”

“I can’t remember the last time one of my kids had time to go to Wright’s with me.”

The old man may have been the most mentally healthy person in the room. I am certain he was the most emotionally healthy.

And not coincidentally, he was also the most financially healthy.

It’s not uncommon for siblings to fight over their parents’ money, but it is especially poor form to begin the fight before mom and dad actually die.

It works in the other direction, as well. I’ve seen situations where siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents misuse trust assets legally or morally designated for the care of a minor or incompetent beneficiary.

Some parents commonly use money as a manipulative tool with children and grandchildren. Like a hammer, money can be used to either build something or destroy it. It is neither good nor bad. Its value depends on how it is used.

A properly crafted estate plan is important, but it isn’t the foundation of successful generational financial issues. No will can healthily resolve an otherwise dysfunctional family situation.

One hallmark of dysfunctional families is secrets. Secrets are walls built where there should be bridges. Secrets about all sorts of things, not just money. The reading of the will is not the best place to learn you have a half-brother or that dad was married once before.

The family discussion about your assets and testamentary intentions is a process, not an event. Start it early.

It may help your family avoid both emotional and financial kerfuffles—which are really the same thing, anyway.