Keeping Peace in the FamilyAdult Children, Parents, and Planning for the Future

By Brenda Waugh

The song the mother sings in Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw’s, “I Will Love You Forever” has stuck with me since I first read the book with one of my children a couple of decades ago. “I’ll love you foreverI’ll like you for alwaysAs long as I’m livingMy baby, you’ll be.”

In a previous article, I outlined strategies to keep the peace within the family when the parents divorce. This article is also about keeping the peace in the family, but at a much different stage in life. Is “I will love you forever” possible?  Does a parents’ love extend into the child’s adulthood? Can parents make decisions to encourage healthy relationships among their adult children? Can a parents’ love expand beyond their own life to create an opportunity for their children and grandchildren to enjoy not only a financial legacy, but also a legacy in relationships? Yes, but just like the situation with parents who are divorcing, it requires intention and hard work.

Parents can minimize conflict between adult children by involving them in the creation of a power of attorney and a medical directive. A durable power of attorney permits a designated person to sign checks, manage credit, and conduct business on behalf of another. An advanced directive appoints an agent to make medical decisions and provides directions as to how to make the decisions. This provides guidance and creates authority to make medical decisions if the parent is unable to make them independently.

The power of attorney and advanced directives may help to keep the peace among siblings when the parents are unable to make legal or medical decisions. They usually prevent the necessity of going to court to have one child, or another person, appointed to make these decisions.  Families have a very difficult time maintaining unity when, during a time of crisis, they must involve the legal institutions to select which child is best situated to perform these roles.

Another way to lessen conflict between adult children is for parents to create a comprehensive estate plan within which they designate beneficiaries for investment or bank accounts, deed real property, draft a will or create a trust. For many parents, the focus of their estate plan is to avoid paying taxes. This becomes more important and challenging, as state and federal laws change from time to time. However, simply creating the documents and working to minimize tax consequences is not enough. Too often parents of adult children make decisions in private meetings with their attorneys, without informing the children until the documents are needed. Other parents may inform the family but fail to discuss plans in sufficient depth to determine how the decisions could impact harmony within the family. 

There is a better way.

To minimize the potential disagreement, many families engage a mediator trained in elder mediation. During family meetings, participants reach consensus on who may best accept the duties of the legal and medical power of attorney. The parents may also outline the beneficiaries, wills, and trusts they are considering, and consider input from their beneficiaries. These meetings will prevent the shock of a parents’ passing when they have not communicated the information. It may also permit the parent to consider the adult children’s concerns when constructing these essential documents.

In working to maintain harmony within the family when creating an estate plan or power of attorney, a few dos and don’ts provide guidance.

Don’t: Don’t ignore the necessity of executing a power of attorney, medical directive and an estate plan. Without these documents the family must go to court to establish guardianship or conservatorship, often increasing potential conflict among family members.

Don’t: Don’t rely on forms to create documents from the internet or an office supply store. Documents that do not meet the requirements of your state or the needs of your family may wind up being costly and damaging to your family.

Don’t: Don’t focus on taxes to the exclusion of relationships. Including your family in the decision-making process and creating plans to meet everyone’s needs will reduce the potential for conflict in the future.

Do: Do Retain authority over making decisions about your estate plan and power of attorney, but include anyone who is impacted in a collaborative and healthy way. Allow them to participate in discussions to address disagreements in a suitable environment. Consider working with a mediator, a family therapist, or a facilitator to help your family reach mutual understandings before having documents professionally prepared. DISCUSS long and short-term plans of each family member before deciding how to structure an inheritance, create a trust, or make a will.  Looking at each family member’s long- and short-term desires and needs will minimize future conflict.

Include provisions in all documents, as much as possible, to require beneficiaries to participate in mediation prior to engaging in legal action to resolve conflicts and provide for the costs to be paid by the estate, or equally between parties. Families can provide a great comfort and resource when challenged with difficult times. Proper thought and planning, with the family relationship being the focus of the plan, can maintain lifelong relationships that will provide future generations with more than financial security.

Brenda Waugh is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern 
Panhandle of West Virginia