Advisor Insight

What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate

Key Points
  • Even those with thorough estate plans might have neglected to discuss details with potential heirs.
  • Certain aspects of your end of life plans should be shared with adult children, say advisors.
  • How much you share should take family dynamics into account.
Eric Audras | ONOKY | Getty Images

So you finished your estate plan.

You finalized a will, made sure beneficiaries are named on financial accounts, signed all other pertinent documents and picked an executor to carry out your wishes when you die.

You might have overlooked one consideration: whether you should share the details of your efforts with your adult children.

"This is a tricky one and definitely depends on the family," said Kristi Sullivan, a certified financial planner and owner of Sullivan Financial Planning in Denver.

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It's a sentiment echoed by many advisors. Yet they also said there are certain parts of estate planning that should be shared — regardless of whether money is part of that discussion.

An estate's value at the time of settlement varies widely: Most are worth between $50,000 and $250,000, according to a 2018 survey by EstateExec.com, an online software provider. About 11% are worth under $10,000 and 11% more than $1 million.

Family conflict, however, is common in many cases regardless of the estate's value: More than 44% of survey respondents said it has happened in their family. In other words, even if you view your estate plan as tidy and definitive, it still could blindside your adult children when you're gone.

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"Do you want your bequests to children to be about resentment, whether toward each other or toward you?" said David Mendels, a CFP and director of planning at Creative Financial Concepts in New York.

The basics

In basic terms, "estate" just refers to everything you own when you die: your financial assets, real estate and possessions. An estate plan focuses on making sure those things end up where you want them to, as well as anticipating other end-of-life considerations.

If you die without a will — called dying intestate — the courts in your state will decide who gets what. That process is public and often messy if would-be heirs have competing priorities and conflicting notions of what is rightfully theirs.

However, not everything about an estate plan deals with money or other assets you're leaving behind.

For example, it's generally recommended that you assign power of attorney to a trusted person to handle your finances if you reach a point when you can no longer can. Same goes for medical decisions. Experts also say it's wise to have a living will (also called an advance health-care directive), which outlines your wishes if you become incapacitated due to illness or injury (i.e., whether you want to be left on life support).

Value of settled estates

Less than $10k11%
$10k to $50k17%
$50k to $250k30%
$250k to $500k18%
$500k to $1 million14%
$1 million-$5 million8%
More than $5 million3%

Source: 2018 survey by EstateExec.com

"In virtually every circumstance, you should tell your kids who is in charge of that stuff," Mendels said. "They need to know that, and they shouldn't find it out when you're lying in a hospital bed unconscious."

For the money side, though, it's far more of a gray area surrounding the question of how much you should tell your kids. However, there are considerations that can help you make that decision.

"Some clients simply want to keep their finances and plans private for a variety of reasons," said CFP George Reilly, principal of Safe Harbor Financial Advisors in Occoquan, Virginia.

"In those cases, I strongly encourage them to at least notify their loved ones — or at a minimum anyone they have appointed a fiduciary role — of the existence of the plan, the [individuals] who have responsibility, and the location of plan documents and other things," said Reilly, who also is an estate planning attorney.

He said sharing those basics helps prevent the family from hunting for information about the decedent's assets and liabilities — especially when many people now use online resources to get and store that information.

"In the old days you could wait on the mail to bring statements and bills, but many folks use online resources now and the 'hunt' is that much harder," Reilly said.

What may influence your decision

Again, how much you share can depend on family dynamics.

"When the subject comes up with clients, I say, 'You know your kids better than I do,'" Mendels said. "You have to think about the individuals you'd be talking to and how they're going to respond."

For example, your children may be doing their own financial plan — figuring out their short- and long-term goals and how to fund them. If they were to find out an inheritance may be coming their way, they could factor it into their own planning.

If the client believes a peaceful transfer of assets is likely, it can help adult children with their own financial planning.
Kristi Sullivan
Owner of Sullivan Financial Planning

"If the client believes a peaceful transfer of assets is likely, it can help adult children with their own financial planning," said Sullivan at Sullivan Financial Planning.

She also said that if the inheritance would be unexpectedly large, it may be worth preparing your kids for it.

"It's surprising, but sometimes inheriting big sums of money can have a traumatizing effect on the heirs if they are totally unaware of what's coming," Sullivan said.

Additionally, if you are not splitting everything evenly, it may be worth communicating that in advance. For example, if one child has special needs and you are directing a sizable portion of your estate to their support, it may be worth warning the other siblings who are self-sufficient.

"You may have very good and well thought out reasons for what you're doing, but if you don't communicate with your kids, they won't know," said Mendels at Creative Financial Concepts. "And when they find out, you're not there to explain it."

On the other hand, some adult children may not be well-equipped to handle the notion of an inheritance.

"If it's substantial money, they might think, 'Oh, I don't have to do anything now because I'll be rich someday,'" Mendels said.

And if your children ask you about your money situation? Don't assume the worst, advisors say.

Sometimes, they may just want to know that you have the financial wherewithal to get through your life, regardless of what you leave behind.

"Maybe they just want to know you're okay," Mendels said. "Maybe they're wondering if you're going to come knocking on their door to move in because you ran out of money."

Regardless of whether you share the dollar details or just the need-to-know basics, communication can go a long way.

"My experience is that most people err too much on the side of not talking," Mendels said. "Trying to err on the side of communication on most things is probably good advice, not just specific to money."