Here's my hope for after I die: My kids gather and weep copious tears — for a bit. Then they pause to say, “Wow! Mom was so generous and organized, right to the end. Let's honor that by being best friends forever!"
Thanks to a legendary sibling-splitting battle over my grandmother's modest estate, my biggest fear is that my death will create family problems bad enough to estrange my kids from each other. Either that or they will curse me for mistakes I've left behind. So I've been maniacally tying up loose ends, even though I hope to have decades before I pass to that great library/day spa in the sky. That's heaven, right? My husband and I rewrote our wills. I'm updating the beneficiaries of my IRA. And I'm telling everyone what I want done with my body postdeath.
But when it comes to end-of-life and postmortem issues, too many people go the other way. Even with the best intentions, they make a hash of their affairs, leaving kids clueless, powerless and sometimes moneyless, too. Also really angry.
"The kids feel like their parents left them a mess,” says Sandra Clapp, an estate-planning attorney in Eagle, Idaho, who has seen it all. “Of course, they love their parents and don't want to be angry, but there is this feeling of ‘How dare you leave me to figure this out?’ “
I've talked to Clapp and other experts to find out what I shouldn't do if I want to leave a harmonious and loving family in my wake. These are the blunders to avoid.
The client had completely preplanned his own funeral, remembers Oklahoma City estate-planning attorney Jerry E. Shiles. “He bought his plot and prepaid for the funeral, wrote out the hymns, the order of hymns, who he wanted pallbearers to be, who the minister should be, what the obituary should say, what the eulogy should say.” But he never told any of his three kids, who quickly put together a funeral when he died, making different choices (and paying double) all the way through. Two weeks later, when they saw Shiles, he said, “I'm sure you were comforted to know your dad had everything preplanned.” And that's how they found out.
Not all secrets are easy to share, but nonetheless they should be told. One couple went through a will-writing session with Les Kotzer, a wills and estates lawyer in Thornhill, Ontario. After they left, the husband returned by himself to say, “My wife doesn't know this, but I have a son in the Bahamas.” Kotzer had to drop the couple as clients — it would have been a conflict of interest for him to write either will once he knew about the secret son.
Fail on the follow-through
There are countless stories of elders telling their relatives, “When I go, this ____ [fill in the blank: ring, painting, house] is yours.” But if that intended gift isn't recorded in a will or an addendum to it, the gift may never pass to that person. Kotzer once saw brothers get violent over a Howdy Doody lunch box. If you want someone in particular to get your special lunch box, put that in your will. Or consider skipping the whole shebang and selling your item on eBay.
Make technical blunders
These are the worst because they're avoidable. Don't, for example, name one child as the beneficiary of your IRA if you intend for that person to split the money with the other children. The recipient will have to withdraw money from the account and pay taxes to cash out. Instead, name every person you intend to receive money on each of your IRAs’ beneficiary forms.
Failing to keep a will up to date can be a problem as well. One father, Kotzer remembers, wrote his will during the dot-com boom, when his stocks were worth millions. He left 20 nieces and nephews $10,000 each, and bequeathed the rest of the shares to his two children, one of whom had special needs and significant expenses. By the time the father died, the stocks once worth $2 million were valued at only $230,000. The nieces and nephews got their money, but his children each got only about $15,000 — much less than Dad had intended.
Leave a mess — literally
Parents who insist on living in a home they can't maintain or clean provoke resentment in children who can't get them to move or clean up, says Elizabeth Nelson, cofounder of Children of Hoarders, an online support group. Then, when a parent dies, a child often has to spend considerable time and money cleaning out the home and getting it in salable condition. Or they pay a company to come clean everything out at once and then feel guilty about that.
While few people meet the criteria of “hoarder,” many of us do go overboard saving clothes we last wore years ago, National Geographics we never read or canceled checks left over from the 20th century.
"I just felt anger,” says Louise Yale, 75, a retired dietitian in Lafayette, Calif., who inherited a home from her mother, a lifelong hoarder. “I had to waste part of my life clearing up after her, when she should have taken care of it 30 years ago."
Be vague about treatment
The only thing worse than kids fighting after their parents die is having them squabble over Mom's still-breathing body. But that happens time and again when people fail to plan properly for their end-of-life care, says Karen Wyatt, a hospice M.D. from Dillon, Colo., and the author of several books about end-of-life issues.
Parents often tell their children they don't want “extraordinary measures” but fail to complete the paperwork so their specific preferences are documented and the children can participate in the medical decision-making. Or they name the wrong child as their health care proxy — say, picking the oldest because of birth order, rather than the child best equipped to deal with doctors. And even with documents available, many families get confused about what everything means; without a conversation, children won't fully understand what a parent intends.
“That creates a terrible bind for the child,” Wyatt says. Shiles recalls receiving a call from a hospital: His client's mother was unconscious and five siblings were arguing over next steps. But without the proper designations in hand, the doctors refused to speak with any of them.
Don't plan for remarriages
Everyone has heard this tale: Mom or Dad remarries and leaves everything to the second spouse. When that person dies, his or her kids get it all.
Kotzer tells the story of a client — let's call her Alice — whose grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, later became wealthy investing in apartment buildings. He promised his granddaughter, “It will all be yours one day.” He died, and his daughter, Alice's mother, died unexpectedly shortly thereafter. Alice's father inherited the entire estate and ultimately married a young woman (introduced to him by Alice, ironically) who had her own young children. When Alice asked her father for a small sum to launch a boutique business, he turned her down, saying he needed the money for his new family. “But that was supposed to be for me,” Alice said. “It's my money now,” Dad replied. And they haven't spoken since. If Grandpa really wanted to protect his granddaughter, says Kotzer, he should have left half to her and half to her mother.
Make them share
Leaving the family business to all your kids may not be the blessing — or the glue to hold the family together — you think it might be. Often one child is more involved than the others and will resent not being left a clear path to succession. Shiles oversaw one such case that recently settled, after eight years of dispute, among the widow of the owner, the son who had hoped to take over the business, and his siblings. “They all hate each other now,” Shiles notes.
Another couple, hoping to reunite long-squabbling siblings, named their two children as their estate's cotrustees, Shiles says. The estate remained in limbo for almost five years because the two refused to cooperate. Shiles resigned from the case when it appeared there would be no end to their fighting.
As for me, I'm doing my part to fend off fighting in my family. Note to self: Get on eBay and sell that Howdy Doody lunch box.
Longtime journalist Linda Stern is the former wealth-management and personal finance editor at Thomson Reuters.