We’ve all had those special moments with a parent or grandparent. While visiting their home and reminiscing about the past, we admired a family heirloom or praised a piece of jewelry. In response, Mom or Grandma makes a promise: “One day, this will be yours.” When the sad day comes, however, and the Will is read, there is no mention of who should get the treasured object—or it is left to someone else. As heartbreaking as this might be, there is nothing that can be done about it because, when it comes to estate plans unless it’s in writing, it’s not going to happen.
You can avoid this unfortunate situation with your children and grandchildren by taking some action now. Learn about the kinds of bequests that will not have legal standing after your death and find out what you can do now to make sure your wishes are honored after you are gone.
Common Misconceptions About Bequests
The first thing to understand is that your verbal promises to loved ones don’t mean anything after you are gone. In fact, they can cause a lot of tension and unhappiness among your children and grandchildren as they argue over what they think your intentions were. All that matters is what’s in writing. Here are some common ways people unintentionally create family conflict:
- Leaving property that no longer exists. Let’s say you want to leave your car to your oldest grandson. You specify exactly which car he should get in your Will, but by the time you are gone, and the Will is read, you have replaced that car with another. Even if you would still want your grandson to get your car, because you didn’t change the car that was named in your Will before you passed, your grandson will not automatically get the car. This is known as a lapse or ademption.
- Telling everyone your plans. It doesn’t matter how many witnesses there are when you tell someone you are going to leave a specific item to them. Your family may all verbally agree, but after you are gone, the gloves come off. If it’s not in writing, they do not have to honor your wishes.
- Keeping funds in a joint account. If you had an adult child added to your bank account at some point to help with your bills, you have essentially already given your money to that person. Even if you stipulate in your Will that your savings should be divided equally among your children, unless the child whose name is on the account agrees to share, that money is all theirs.
The bottom line is that intentions don’t mean anything in probate court. Leaving your children to fight it out or to try to explain what you “meant” by your actions is doing them a great disservice. As cooperative as they might be while you are alive, you can never know how they might turn on one another after your death.
Avoiding These Problems After Your Death
When you work with an estate planning attorney, you can ensure that what you want to happen after your death will happen. Some suggestions we regularly make to our clients include:
- Gift items while you are alive. If you really want your only granddaughter to have your pearl necklace, why not give it to her now? If you no longer use your deer rifle, and you want your grandson to have it when you are gone, why not make it a special 16th birthday gift? Not only can giving things away while you are alive ensure that they go to the people you want to have them, but it also creates a very special and meaningful moment for the recipient.
- Have a financial Power of Attorney. If you need help paying bills, don’t put an adult child on your account. Instead, name them as your Power of Attorney. That gives them the ability to help you out without giving them all of your savings.
- Update your estate plan regularly. An estate plan should be reviewed and updated annually to make sure you have accounted for any changes that have occurred. At this point, you can also remove property from your Will that you no longer have and include any new property you have acquired.