I am always interested in learning why people are coming in to take a closer look at their estate plan. Many people think “estate planning” (i.e., creation of a will, trust or other strategies to transfer assets at death) is about avoiding court processes when somebody dies or making sure to utilize certain federal estate tax exemptions. But those reasons are typically not The Motivator. Sometimes, people will be able to identify The Motivator when I initially ask why they came to my office. But more often, The Motivator is identified in response to the following question: “what are you hoping for, and what are you afraid of?”
Once we know what a client is hoping to accomplish and what a client wants to avoid, we know a lot about their family dynamics and what strategies need to be considered in drafting their customized estate plan. For instance, many are motivated by a particular diagnosis or a more general awareness that the day will come when they will leave this Earth, and they desire to position a surviving spouse well upon the death of the first. But this motivation goes beyond tax planning. In farming operations, this may include provisions that set forth how the operations will continue in the event the husband passes away first. It might include language that allows a surviving spouse the use, but not the ownership, of certain assets in order to help protect those assets for future generations in the event of remarriage. People are often motivated to make sure their spouse continues to be cared for if something happens to them.
Sometimes The Motivator for couples is the desire for their hard work to be a blessing, not a hindrance, to their loved ones. They trust their children but want to set up a plan that helps maintain family harmony in a flexible, yet clearly-defined way. As they have done their entire lives, The Motivator for many parents is to position their children well in a way that allows them to find their own success.
On more than several occasions, I can recall working with families in South Dakota and North Dakota for which The Motivator was The Girlfriend. The son was getting involved in a “precarious” relationship, and the parents were concerned about the influence that The Girlfriend, who could potentially become The Wife, would have. Simply, they do not want a situation where they leave everything to their son, their son dies in a farming accident, and everything goes to The Wife. Who knows if she will care about retaining the land, or if she will be influenced to sell, or if she will get remarried and family land is suddenly at risk of being transferred to a completely unrelated individual?
Please do not misunderstand me; I see the positive power of family every single day in my practice. I cherish the opportunities to sit across the table from couples who demonstrate the love and respect that has carried them through the hardships, challenges, and curveballs that life has thrown them. However, I have also seen the anguish, pain, and anger that can be part of family relationships. I live in a world of heart attacks, farm accidents, cancer, divorce, drought, hail, market conditions, and family feuds, and I have seen the heartache caused by the failure to plan. For these reasons, helping a family stay a family, and a farm stay a farm is The Motivator for me to help others avoid becoming a worst case scenario.
What is The Motivator for you? Have you slowed up enough to consider what would cause you to look closer at your legacy plan? Are you in front of the right type of people who are going to ask the questions to really evaluate your family dynamics and to use that information to design (and maintain) a plan that will help you accomplish what you want to accomplish and avoid what you want to avoid? I strongly encourage you to consult with a qualified estate planning attorney who can help you determine what The Motivator is for you and to help you put a plan in place that offers you peace of mind in knowing that what motivates you will be accomplished.