The bitter family feud over the Samsung inheritance fortune that has been brewing in South Korea for the last several months should be a stinging reminder of how important it is for individuals to have end-of-life and estate-planning documents in place before death and before they grow too old or ill to do so.
Protecting Loved Ones from Tough Decisions. Planning for one’s own death is not easy. Individuals should look past the macabre elements of estate-planning, not only because death is an inevitable reality, but because it is absolutely required for the protection of loved ones. A death without a thoughtfully-prepared and frequently-revisited estate plan could leave loved ones guessing about how to handle one’s end-of-life issues, such as resuscitation and others raised by advanced health-care directives. Loved ones can be left with lasting trauma when forced to make life-altering decisions for their parents or relatives, assuming they can even reach an agreement. Estate-planning documents can provide necessary instruction and relieve loved ones from the burden of having to guess how to handle tough issues.
Problems with “DIY” Wills. For the past few years, I have been involved in a number of lawsuits involving adult children and relatives in complex families, in which a step-parent is left with virtually all of the assets and control of the family finances after the passing of the biological parent. This is a problem that can be exacerbated by overly simplistic wills. Basic or “do it yourself” wills often do not consider the problems that exist when there are biological children of now-divorced spouses and “new-family” children produced by re-married spouses. On occasions, relationships between “first-family” children and a step-parent are sour at best, and when a step-parent is left in total control of the family’s finances simply because of an overly-simplistic will, there is every risk that the “first-family” children and “new-family” children are not dealt with equally. The “first-family” child often feels hurt by the biological parent’s perceived thoughtlessness, angry at the step-parent, and resentful of step-siblings. Most of the times, the family relationships are never the same. A current and thoughtfully-prepared will on the part of the deceased could have wholly avoided these unfortunate events.
What’s the Hurry? Most Americans mistakenly believe they are too young to be worrying about end-of-life and estate-planning. This is terribly naïve. Accidents happen, children are born in and out of marriages, divorces result, and family relationships change over time. If an individual is involved in an accident that leaves him or her mentally impaired, it is usually too late. The law requires individuals be fully competent and capable of understanding the nature of his/her actions in taking estate-planning steps – otherwise, the documents could be deemed ineffective and void.
Who Should Be Planning? Any person who has a loved one needs to consider end-of-life and estate-planning issues. This includes not only the preparation of a will providing instructions on the distribution of one’s property, but also self-care instructions, such as advanced health care directives, living wills, and other documents. If substantial assets are involved, individuals should consider how best to place their assets in the hands of those to whom they wish those assets to be given. Sometimes, individuals simply want loved ones to “inherit” their belongings outright – but other times, they would prefer to leave gifts that help pay for college costs, medical expenses, a downpayment on their child’s future house, or wedding expenses – events that could happen many years after the individual’s death. There are countless ways of estate-planning in a manner that comports with one’s wishes.
Avoidance Increases the Risks. Dealing with aging family members and one’s own impending mortality is not easy – it is arguably the toughest issue that individuals face in life. But ignoring the issues simply because they are unpleasant to consider is dangerous – accidents can happen at any time and being left deceased or too impaired to prepare an estate plan can have lasting, irrevocable, and entirely-avoidable consequences for loved ones. It doesn’t take the $613 million at issue in the Samsung family lawsuit for bitter disputes to arise between family members.