How do you mitigate tensions in creating an estate plan? Write a precatory letter, of course!
A precatory letter is the document some clients use to express their love to their families. The letter is not, in itself, a legally binding document, but is meant to provide an emotional cushion for loved-ones if they are grieving. It can also provide distraught next-of-kin some guidance as to the wishes and intentions of the author. When my grandmother passed, it would have been deeply satisfying to read a letter she had penned just for me. Whether she wrote one sentence, “I love you” or waxed on about her rebellious teenage years, I would have treasured it dearly. But, actually writing such a letter, especially if you do not have terminal illness or are not in your twilight years, can feel quite morose.
Even so, precatory letters have other uses. Sometimes, precatory letters focus on knick-knacks. Families who are grieving an unexpected death in the family will fight about the strangest things like a photo-album or kitchen furnishing. Others may point fingers as to who lost track of a tarnished ring. These squabbles are hard to predict, and heart-breaking to experience. As I help clients draft estate plans, we spend a good deal of time discussing the assets that have little to no value. If we can make clear who gets insubstantial (in monetary value) but sentimental objects, it can prevent a future fight. If we discuss who would realistically take in a persnickety pet, it can also help decrease the likelihood of some family member feeling like they are always being put-upon as they take in the dog that growls or is not house-broken.
Finally, precatory letters can also address what a person does not want to happen. For instance, I have all of my clients discuss what they would like to have happen to their email account. Most will say “just close it if I pass on” but sometimes a longer conversation is warranted. What if a person is writing an article, and drafts are being passed back and forth with an editor? What if a person is managing an ancestry.com account and has not shared their login credentials? What if a person is about to sell their online-profile on a gaming site or blog page and there is potential advertising revenue available? Clients may have more valuable digital assets than they first imagine, and they can alleviate future conflicts by making sure these assets are properly disposed.
Precatory letters? More like de-escalation decrees – they’re great!