Leaving a legacy means different things to different clients. Some may want to be remembered for the memories they created with those around them when they were still alive; for example, the trip of a lifetime. Others might want to leave money, jewellery, paintings, artifacts, or other family heirlooms to loved ones, or a financial gift to a favourite charity.

Unfortunately, a legion of stories about battles over estates demonstrates the importance of clearly and properly documenting wishes. Here’s one example:

Deborah, a music major at university, practised on a Heintzman piano her grandfather had passed on to her father. She thought she would inherit the instrument. After her father died, his five children couldn’t find a will. Her brother Robert became estate administrator and insisted all belongings would be sold and split evenly among the children. Deborah offered to buy the piano from the estate. Robert gave her three months to come up with the money. Before the deadline, Robert sold the piano, claiming he received thousands more dollars than Deborah had offered. She sued her brother, settling in court for twice the amount she had originally offered to pay. The buyer of her father’s piano, however, refused to sell it.1

Legacy planning represents a great opportunity to help your clients avoid intra-family conflicts, while potentially building inter-generational relationships.

Simple steps to avoid inheritance disagreements

Les Kotzer, co-author of three books about inheritance conflicts and how to avoid them, frequently discusses this issue on major media outlets. He offers clear and simple advice for your clients:

  • Update your documents. Kotzer suggests that “a will has to be a living, breathing document that reflects your current situation. Pick up your will, dust it off, and bring it in for a checkup. Quite often I find errors, things that are out-of-date, and recipes for quarrels.”
  • In your will, name an executor and a backup executor. Ask the person you name if they want to be the executor. Also, if you have young kids, name a guardian to raise them, in case both parents pass away. “If you are considering appointing three or more children as your executors, consider inserting a majority clause in your Will…[allowing] the decision of the majority of your executors to bind your estate and thereby avoid a deadlock among them.”2
  • A power of attorney for property and a power of attorney for personal care aren’t part of your will. You’ll need two separate documents naming these powers of attorney.
  • Remember that equality isn’t always fair when gifting. A caregiver will need more resources to care for you. As well, Kotzer’s advice is to “give a lot of consideration to personal items. It’s best to create neutrality and don’t automatically defer to the oldest child. Try a lottery—pull names out of a hat—to distribute items.”
  • Be careful with relatives, especially transferring assets into joint ownership with sons and daughters. “Giving up control of your assets to your children to save tax when you die is not always a good idea,” says Kotzer. Consider the mother who transferred half of the interest in her home to her son, only to watch as his business failed. The lawyer who acted for her son’s trustee in bankruptcy demanded his half of the value of her home in payment, seriously eroding her financial security.3

Discussing these issues with your clients can lead to a more efficient and friendly transfer of their wealth.

Leaving a clear and meaningful legacy

Start the conversation by asking how they want to be remembered. Do they volunteer for a charitable organization or plan to volunteer when they retire? They could leave a legacy to a cause they’re passionate about, by gifting life insurance or a life annuity.

If, on the other hand, they want to split their assets among children/grandchildren, do they want to give cherished items to the loved one most worthy of receiving them? To avoid potential conflicts, your clients could choose one of the following ways to communicate the contents of their will, before they die:

  • Meet with their children/grandchildren one on one or in a group.
  • Write a letter or create a video explaining their reasoning and choices.
  • Use a neutral facilitator to help diffuse potentially divisive issues within their families.4

Using a workbook to capture all your clients’ assets can also be a great start to a legacy conversation. In the process of cataloguing items, you’ll be reviewing their insurance and investments, possibly discovering gaps in their legacy and financial planning that you could help fill.

By discussing their legacy, you’ll encourage your clients to reflect on what’s really important in their lives and provide a higher level of holistic advice.

The following legacy planning tools are available from Legacy needs – Money for Life:

  • Money for Life – Legacy video (client-facing, educational, only three minutes)
  • Prospecting email – “Let’s talk about leaving a legacy that matters to you” (links to video)
  • Sound bites document – “Let’s talk legacy” (conversation starters with your clients)
  • Legacy worksheet (four-page questionnaire/worksheet)
  • Planned giving – A guide for clients (20-page guide)
  • What to do now – A reference guide for your executor (40-page workbook)

Send an email if you have any questions or want more information.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, Les Kotzer has co-authored three books. His new book, The wills lawyers: their stories of money, inheritance, greed, family, and betrayal, will be published later this year.

This article is not an endorsement by Sun Life Financial of the opinions and services of Les Kotzer. It’s important for your clients to hire an estate planning lawyer to create wills, appoint powers of attorney and executors, and handle inheritance matters.

You might also like…

1 Les Kotzer and Barry M. Fish, “The Piano,” Where there’s an inheritance…, Continental Atlantic Publications Inc., Toronto 2009, pages 27-31.

2 Les Kotzer and Barry M. Fish, “Your will: appointment of executors,” The family fight: Planning to avoid it, Continental Atlantic Publications Inc., Toronto 2006, pages 111, 112.

3 “Joint ownership: I should never have done it,” Where there’s an inheritance…, pages 104, 105.

4 Les Kotzer, Jordan M. Atin, and Barry M. Fish, “Some good news,” The Family War: Winning the Inheritance Battle, Continental Atlantic Publications Inc., Toronto 2006, page 137.