Recently, when a family came in to our offices to learn about the provisions of their grandfather’s trust, they couldn’t stop saying, “I can’t believe you got him to sign anything.”
Not long before that, another family had come in to sign some documents that would close down the trust administration for their parents’ assets. “We are still amazed at how you were able to get our sister to agree to an equal distribution of the assets,” chuckled the oldest of three daughters. “She always said that she deserved more than we did because we were so mean to her when she was growing up.” The sister looked me directly in the eye without any trace of a smile, then nodded as she said, “And she was dead serious.”
With every family, the steps required to either convince a person to finish a will or a trust on the one hand, or to not contest the trust on the other hand, are as varied as the families themselves. Without a doubt, many families have long-standing problems that bar any resolution without bringing in a family counselor to still the storm brewing around the family tree.
With other, less troubled families, there are often things that can be done to smooth the path to resolution. The two families mentioned above – the hesitant father whose children could not believe he had signed the documents, and the two sisters with an angry third – both involved exercises to help the troubled family member move closer to the family traditions which had already held the groups together for so many years.
After a few talks with the contrary dad, it became obvious that he felt he was not genuinely appreciated by members of his family, whom he saw as basically waiting for him to die to get his money. He was stunned in a subsequent meeting when we presented him with a “shadow box” with all of his military insignia from the Korean Conflict on display inside the framed holder. Asked how he would decide which one of his family members would want the keepsake, he responded “Who would want it?” He was shocked again when we shared with him that every one of his grandchildren was willing to give up substantial other assets to get this memento of his history. After a moment of stirred breathing, he looked up and asked “What can I do?”
Two months later he had a framed keepsake for every one of his grandchildren, each with at least one of his original insignia or medals, filled in with replicas of the other patches, medals or ribbons, so that each framed presentation was a full representation of his military career. Even more exciting for him was the opportunity to present the boxes to his grandchildren at their respective schools in front of their classmates. “They clapped for me,” he said simply in a later meeting. “My grandkids clapped the loudest.” He executed his estate documents four days after the final frame presentation.
Angry Sister was just a slightly different variety of the same familiar family figure: just like 1960’s Tommy Smothers’ lament, she believed that everybody always liked her less, or not at all.
When it came time to decide which daughter would receive which diploma, picture, sports letter or other evidence of their parents’ achievements, they agreed to give each daughter a complete set of the remarkable documents, with equal originals going to each daughter. The family convened in a conference room setting with all the originals spread over the table top for each to see, and the copies in two stacks next to the stunningly handsome attorney moderator.
Beginning with the angry daughter, each daughter got a certificate, followed by her sisters each getting an amazing color copy of the original. That program preceded the same process for family photographs dating back three generations. When it was finished, the three daughters each had a full set of the certificates showcasing their parents’ impressive achievements, along with a photographic history of their family. It was an amazing evening of recounting many times of shared joy.
One of the sisters asked if that would be the program for dispersing the investments when the parents were gone, half joking and half out of curiosity. “No, dear,” Mom quickly answered. “That will only be money. You’ll each get exactly what the others will get, just like we always did while you were growing up.”
As expected, when Mom departed, each of the three walked quietly through the distribution of what was, after all, just money. M