Talking to Your Spouse About Estate Planning

I see a lot of married couples in my practice, and I’ve noticed that usually one of the spouses is more interested in the process than the other. That’s okay–I don’t expect both spouses to be fascinated by estate planning–but I think that the process works best when both spouses participate.

If you’re interested in preparing, but your spouse isn’t, what can you do?

First, help your spouse understand why this is important to you. What are the concerns prompting you?

  • Making sure that your kids have the guardian you’d prefer if you’re not there
  • Agreeing on a plan of distribution
  • Easing the burden on the other spouse if one of you becomes incapacitated
  • Preparing for long-term care
  • Planning for succession of a family business
  • Passing specific items, like family heirlooms
  • Ensuring your estate avoids probate

For some spouses, simply understanding why planning is important is a big key to getting them involved in the process.

Second, understand their resistance. No one enjoys calling a lawyer to get started on an estate (I try not to make it too painful). And preparing your estate is a lot easier to ignore than other legal problems, which tend to get your attention. Usually, people procrastinate on estate planning for one of four reasons:

  1. “Estate planning is for rich people, right?” There are many people who believe that estate planning is only for the wealthy. The wealthy can definitely get some advantages out of planning, but issues like who takes care of the kids or who makes decisions for you if you can’t? Those issues affect everyone regardless of net worth.
  2. “I can still do my plan tomorrow.” You are not a bottle of milk; there is no expiration date stamped on you. If there were, you’d know when it was time to start planning. Life is uncertain, though, and things can change very fast–eventually it will be too late.
  3. “I don’t want to think about my death.” Most people don’t, and I can’t blame you for not wanting to. I believe that the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you’ve protected yourself, your loved ones, and your assets outweighs a short confrontation of your own mortality. Also, I like to think of the process as a way to really celebrate your life–your plan can honor and celebrate what really matters to you.
  4. “But this is going to cost a lot.” It’s true; good advice about estate planning and a well-drafted plan are going to cost money. That said, if you’re working with an attorney, you should understand what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and how much it costs before the attorney gets started. I offer my estate planning clients what we call a “flat fee,” where the client knows the cost at the beginning, and it doesn’t change based upon the number of hours worked.

It’s possible that your spouse may have other reasons to avoid making a plan, but in my experience, it usually falls into something in those four objections.

If you’re interested in preparing an estate plan, having your spouse on board is valuable. You’re going to be making decisions that will affect both of you (particularly if your health turns poor or you pass away first), so I believe it’s best for both spouses to be on board. As a last resort, it is possible to do estate planning on your own, but again, I think that the vast majority of couples are better off with a plan they’ve thought through together.

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