Create incentives in estate planning

As the mother of two young, rambunctious children, I am always keeping an eye out for their safety. I find myself giving constant reminders to hold hands in the parking lot, don’t jump on the couch, and for goodness’ sake, stop hitting your little brother with a hammer! For parents, protecting young children from life’s dangers is a basic instinct. However, as children get older and take on more autonomy, the focus of parents shifts away from protecting our kids from external threats and toward incentivizing wise choices and behaviors that will set them up for success in life.

These instincts to protect and incentivize our children come into play when considering how and when they should receive an inheritance. While it is obvious that my two and four-year-olds are not able to manage an inheritance, that determination can be less clear for an adult child. This is why your estate planning attorney asks questions about your children, such as what they do for a living, what their marriage is like, how they manage their own money, and whether they have any health concerns. Your attorney is looking for any issues that could complicate or frustrate your planning.

For example, if your child has struggled with addiction in the past, you may want to protect him from the temptations that could come with receiving a lump sum of money and incentivize him to live a healthy lifestyle. Or if your child is a poor money manager, you may want to protect her from quickly blowing through her inheritance on trivial purchases and incentivize her to make wise decisions and plan for the future. Even if she is a decent money manager, you may leave her an inheritance equal to more than she made from her regular paycheck for the last decade. The possibility of a child’s divorce or bankruptcy are other issues parents can anticipate in their estate planning. It may be wise to leave the inheritance with a few “strings attached” to avoid unintended consequences after your passing.

Some parents readily acknowledge a particular child will struggle to manage their inheritance, but are quick to say, “I’ll be dead, who cares!” While that is certainly an understandable response, I counsel parents against simply dismissing the final chance to protect and incentive their children out of fear of offending that child or treating that child differently from others. The “strings” you attach to their inheritance can make a positive lasting impact on them and their families.

The possibilities are almost endless regarding how to create incentives through your child’s inheritance. Most involve a trust for the benefit of that child, with varying degrees of “rules” that say when funds can be distributed from the trust. The distributions from this trust can be very liberal and generous to your child if there is no trouble on the horizon, but immediately become more restrictive if the circumstances warrant it. If you know exactly what you want to protect against and incentivize toward, your attorney can write specific language to suit your situation. As with any trust, selecting a capable trustee is essential, as is understanding how the income taxes will work.

Ideally, you will visit with your children about your decision regarding how and when they will receive their inheritance. If you decide to set up a trust for them upon your death, it’s typically better if they receive that news from you during your lifetime so they have a reasonable expectation of what will happen upon your passing, as opposed to your attorney informing them after your passing.

If you are contemplating updates to your estate plan, or thinking through these issues for the first time, consider how you might continue to encourage your children by creating protections and incentives in your estate planning.

This article does not constitute legal advice. Each individual should consult his or her own attorney.


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