How to talk to your kids about wills, inheritance, and estates

How do I talk to my kids about my will?

Talking to your parents about retirement savings and end-of-life care is tough, no question. But what’s mentioned less often is how hard it is for parents to talk to grown children about the disposition of their estate. (You may feel that “estate” is too grand a term for the stuff you leave behind when you die, but it’s the one the law uses, so humor me.)

Some parents are afraid of creating an air of entitlement in their children, if the inheritance they’re bequeathing is significant. Others may decide to leave more to one child than to the others, and fear the hurt feelings that may result. Many feel extremely self-conscious about how great or how little their net worth is. In short, money and emotion are often intertwined, but rarely more so than when it comes to what we leave our kids.

Face the guilt factor

For many parents, this conversation is going to be emotionally fraught. “There could be the fear that, ‘If my kids know how much I’m worth, I will feel guilt because they may discover that I had the capacity to help them more than they thought,’” said Rick Kahler, president of Kahler Financial Group and president-elect of the Financial Therapy Association. On the other hand, parents might anticipate personal humiliation. Kahler said some think, “I would feel so much shame if my kids know what I’m worth, because I’m almost penniless.”

Don’t let that paralyze you. Your kids are responsible for their own financial lives. Just because you have a certain amount in your bank account, that doesn’t mean that you “owe” them that money. Besides, there’s a lot for children to gain in terms of self-esteem and independence from learning to stand on their own two feet when it comes to money. Paying their way through life doesn’t make you a good parent. Conversely, if you don’t have two pennies to rub together, it’s better for them to know that than for you to continue trying to keep up appearances.

Don’t wait until it’s too late

Some parents avoid the topic of their will altogether, leaving it to someone else to deliver the news to their kids after they die. While I sympathize, that’s the wrong approach. For one thing, you don’t want to leave your kids in a situation of enduring hurt feelings, or perhaps sibling infighting, that could have been avoided. Your kids might be uncomfortable discussing your death, but odds are they’ve thought about it. And like most unpleasant tasks in life—from scrubbing the toilet to doing your taxes—putting off this talk will only make things harder.

Furthermore, if you tell your kids now what you’re planning, you may learn something that will affect your decisions. Maybe that child who was slated to get Grandma’s Queen Anne secretary desk doesn’t want it, or collectively your kids won’t be able to afford the taxes and maintenance costs on the lake house you were intending to will them.

Manage expectations

The best approach is to be direct, Kahler said. Talk with your kids as you’re forming your estate plans and making them a part of the process by saying something like, “I want to talk about my will. I want you to be a part of this, and I want to get your feedback. I’d really like your opinions and thoughts.” That doesn’t mean that you have accede to their wishes in all things, but it’s important that they feel heard.

Knowing what they can and can’t expect from their inheritance can help your progeny prepare for the future. A younger child may be relieved to hear that you’re leaving him enough to help cover college costs. An older child should know that she shouldn’t count on a cash windfall to wipe out the debts she’s been running up. You get the picture.

Strive for equality

Kahler recommends divvying up your assets equally if at all possible to avoid hurt feelings and jealousy among your kids. That said, there may be circumstances in which you want to leave one child more than the others. Perhaps you have a son or daughter who has special needs, or who is living hand to mouth while your other children are established professionally. If you do decide to write your will this way, transparency is particularly important, so that your kids can buy into your plans before you are gone.

You might say something like, “You know I love all of you equally, but I’ve decided to leave Tommy $25,000 more than the rest of you, because his physical disability will require more care as he gets older.” You may be surprised at the generosity of spirit of your other children when presented with such an idea. (Or maybe you won’t be surprised—after all, you raised them.)

Don’t sweat the small (and big) stuff

Ask your kids if there’s anything they particularly want. Often, they’ll surprise with the items they request. Grandma’s old knitting box in the attic, or the moldering canoe in the garage that you and your kids used to fish from, may turn out to be the things your kids prize. “Many times the things they really want, the parent doesn’t attach a lot of value to,” said Kahler, speaking from his own experience with clients. He advises that you be specific about which heirs will receive particular sentimental items, while being more general about money assets (say, 50% to each of your two children) and letting your executor divide up your estate.

Talk solo, then talk together

It’s a good idea to have the initial talk about your estate plans with your kids one on one. This is especially smart if you are leaving more to one of your children. This way, you can explain why and answer any questions in a relatively neutral environment. Once you’ve done that, you can have a larger family meeting, if that seems appropriate. All of these conversations can get emotional, but it’s important to try not to get defensive, and to give your children the space to digest this information, as well as to process their own feelings.

Make sure they know your values

Some of you may not plan to leave all of your money to your kids, instead opting to leave some or all of it to charities or other causes that are important to you. Your most important legacy you can pass on to your children is your values. Make sure that part of your conversation with your kids is about those principles—no matter how you divvy up the family china.

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