Family Tree Mediation





The Wisdom of Proactive Estate Planning Mediation

The Wisdom of Proactive Estate Planning in Collaboration with Family Beneficiaries


A small minority of parents involve their children in their estate planning process. The reasons for this fact are understandable, but not sufficiently well founded to make this trend a smart one.

Sources of the Traditional Route to Estate Planning

Often, the estate planning process is initiated while the children are still too young to be able to meaningfully contribute understanding of how the estate plan might best meet their needs. For a time, it is true, the parents know best.

In addition, people often feel reasonably well justified holding the view that the fruit of their life’s labors is theirs to do with as they please. The children should appreciate the gifts they receive, not seek to tell the parents how to make them.

And then, the habit and, indeed, ethics of legal practice have long required avoiding representing multiple interests. An estate planner serves the individual seeking a plan for distributing his or her estate, not the estate’s beneficiaries. The inertia of habit and the simplicity of serving a single interest funnels estate planning out of earshot of the children in a way that reinforces a sense that the estate plan is none of their business.

There is no need to quarrel with the reasons that estate beneficiaries are not allowed or invited to participate in the estate planning process. All of these reasons can be legitimate and still fail to serve the real interests of the individual that needs a plan for distribution of his or her estate among his or her heirs and beneficiaries. And the reason the traditional way of doing estate planning often fails to achieve its desired result is simple: it assumes that the parties receiving the estate gifts will embrace the estate plan without having been involved in its creation. This is an unwise assumption.

Just think of how often much smaller gift giving goes awry. Think of the long return lines in the department stores the day after the Christmas holiday, for example. And this is after Santa has gone out of his way to invite children to write him letters telling him what they want!


Why Receiving Estate Gifts Can Be Difficult, Complex, and a Source of Strife

But a gift of estate assets is not at all as simple as opening that package wrapped in pretty paper. It has a history. It is opened during a time of loss and grief. It is often the focus of the expectations of more than one sibling. It carries unintentional and sometimes unavoidable messages about the quality of the relationship between the parent giving the gift and the child who is or is not receiving it. And yet this gift is delivered at a time the child will be unable to communicate with the parent about the messages the gift conveys. And the challenges of receiving the gift don’t end here.

Estate gifts often come with crushing carrying costs, tax burdens, and management challenges for which the recipient is unprepared. The difficulties associated with maintaining an estate gift are further exacerbated when the gift is shared between multiple siblings who have different standards of living, incomes, states of residence, family obligations, and future plans.

Now, with all this in mind, consider two scenarios. In the first, the parents making their estate plan have a deeply held interest in seeing that the estate assets are treated in a certain way. For example, they may want a family business to either be maintained by one or more of the children or sold to a loyal employee who will continue a certain tradition in the way business is conducted. In the second scenario, the parents making their estate plan just want to help their children in the best way possible, but they have no agenda or preference regarding what happens to their assets and belongings. They just make the plan the best way they know how.

In either scenario, failure to include the children in the estate planning process creates a significant and completely unnecessary chance that the parents’ agenda will be frustrated. The children may be unwilling or unable to abide by the obligations attending the gift they receive and/or the gift may completely fail to serve the children’s most important needs. Worse, the gift may cause the children to fight with each other and endure years of strained or estranged relations.

Discomfort with Death and Conflict

Given the unnecessary nature of this risk, why isn’t it common practice in estate planning to include the children whose attitudes, willingness, and needs will greatly influence whether one's legacy serves a fruitful purpose? The answer, in addition to the reasons given above, is that people are often extremely uncomfortable talking about either conflict or death.

If you are a parent wishing to create or improve your estate plan and you share this discomfort, the good news is that estate mediation can help by creating a space for collaborative planning where such discomfort is kept to manageable proportions.  At the same time, this mediator helps the participants explore the important issues that must be discussed in order for the estate plan to really make sense for everyone. How valuable to everyone’s peace of mind to have taken action to prevent unspoken bitterness over estate issues from disrupting family bonds and memories.

10 Ways Proactive Estate Planning Mediation Helps.

Here are ten ways that proactive estate planning mediation makes it possible for the entire family to overcome the discomfort surrounding conflict and death so that an estate plan that serves everyone’s needs can be created based on greater shared understanding:

  1. By creating and holding a caring, attentive and inquiring communication space where you can all feel equally respected, free and encouraged to speak your truth in a confidential setting;
  2. By facilitating a multi-party communication process aimed at giving each family member deeper satisfaction that he or she really has been heard and understood;
  3. By identifying and distinguishing between the different positions held by respective family members and the core needs those positions are intended to satisfy;
  4. By facilitating exploration of each others’ core needs as a means for creating more opportunity for creative solutions that address the diverse range of interests represented among the whole family;
  5. By identifying and discussing different standards and processes for evaluating the merit of proposed solutions;
  6. By helping the family to apply those standards as a means for voluntarily coming to and refining an agreement on a plan for addressing the issues at hand;
  7. By facilitating the development of a plan for implementing the solutions agreed upon;
  8. By assisting the family in formalizing the agreement;
  9. By fostering an environment in which family members have the opportunity to heal old wounds, apologize for any past wrongs or regrets, and overcome childhood or other patterns that no longer serve a useful purpose;
  10. And by creating an opportunity for training and practice in more constructive communication patterns that will serve the family well when faced with other difficult issues in the future.

If you have questions you would like to ask about Family Tree Mediation’s proactive estate planning mediation services or if you would like to schedule an appointment for mediation, you can call me at (650) 762-TREE [762-8733] or email me using the email form on our Contact Us page.


Hank Edson Family Tree Mediation 72dpiHank Edson, J.D. 

Proprietor of Family Tree Mediation
Serving Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View,
Los Altos and the wider Peninsula & San Francisco Bay Area.

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