Hollywood v. Reality
Many television shows, books, and made-for-TV movies have taken creative license when describing the reading of the Last Will and Testament of a departed family member. Hearing the phrase “The Reading of the Will” conjures scenes of disenfranchised children, spoiled grandchildren, loosely related cousins, and maybe even a mistress of the decedent, all held in a wood-paneled library waiting to find out the salacious details of the Will. The late patriarch’s trusted estate lawyer puts on his horn-rimmed glasses and begins announcing the details to all those awaiting their riches. While this makes for great storytelling, the scene exists only in our imagination and fictional tales.
In most instances, beneficiaries are not asked to come into the lawyer’s office for some grand unveiling. Instead the executor or trustee (or in many cases the law firm representing the executor or trustee) notifies the beneficiary by mail. The letter typically outlines what they are receiving, who they are receiving it from, any restrictions on their use of the inheritance, and often includes a beneficiary receipt. The beneficiary must sign the receipt to accept the distribution, and then the proceeds can be distributed from the decedent’s estate or trust assets.
There are still situations where people or charities are surprised by being included in the decedent’s wishes, but that scenario tends to be less common these days. There are simply less inheritance surprises because more families talk about the particulars of the estate plan BEFORE anyone dies or is incapacitated. In many instances, people prefer to notify the charity of their future bequest while they are still living, both to ensure the funds are earmarked for a desired use and, in some cases, to enjoy the recognition for their future bequest.
Communication Is Key
At JGB we encourage all of our clients to have an open and frank discussion with their beneficiaries and the people involved in the administration of their estate (health care agents, executors, trustees, and power of attorney agents). In recent years, we have asked our clients to provide their attorney with the contact information for their beneficiaries as well as those helping to administer their trust or probate estate. We then send letters introducing our firm to them. This not only encourages an open dialogue among families (because they now know a plan exists), but it also gives our firm’s information to those involved so they can reach out to us for direction when death or disability occur.
Passing wealth efficiently to beneficiaries is directly correlated with putting in the work before disability and death and to appropriate communication with those involved. JGB provides our clients with a number of organizational worksheets to help illustrate their wishes and to help them provide necessary information to those administering their estate/trust. This can consist of a basic list of financial holdings (bank accounts, real estate, business holdings, etc.), but it can also go into further detail like who should receive certain pieces of jewelry or other tangible personal property. At JGB, we also encourage our clients to provide detailed information regarding the value of rare or peculiar items. I have a number of clients that have extensive collections, some more obscure than others. For example, one of my clients has a collection of antique firearms with a value in excess of $400,000. They have a logbook that lists the purchase price, the serial number, and the current value for each firearm in their collection. This record will help the people administering their estate when they are gone, so they do not mistake an old rusty gun as junk, when in fact it is worth $25,000.
Let Us Introduce Ourselves!
In short, the more work, effort, and communication you put into your estate plan, the higher the likelihood there will be an efficient and uncontentious administration of your estate. If you have not provided our firm with the contact information for your beneficiaries and those named as administrators of the estate, please contact our office so we can send them an introductory letter. As always, please contact the firm if you have further questions and/or would like to meet with your attorney to review your estate plan.