How Secrets Can Affect Estate Planning

Estate planning is, especially for those with substantial assets, a complicated process. For this reason, it’s important to have a well-schooled, highly capable estate planning attorney to guide you through. Some of the journeys are exciting — preparing for a joyful retirement, looking forward to grandchildren or great-grandchildren, imagining the good that can be accomplished when you donate to favorite charities and the pleasures your wealth will bring to future generations of your family.

Of course, there are disturbing aspects to estate planning as well — considering your own mortality, the possible deaths of your loved ones, or circumstances under which your children will need a guardian. As if all of these potential scenarios aren’t emotionally impactful enough, in a surprising number of cases, family secrets contribute confusion and possible resentment to the elements of estate planning. Unfortunately, such secrets often come to light while the will is being probated.

Family Secrets Can Cause Problems

Family secrets that may affect the will and its contents include:

  • The appearance of a close relative who had disappeared or been reported dead  
  • A child of the deceased who was born out of the marriage and kept a secret
  • A child born during a previous marriage that was never revealed
  • A large gift that was given in secret to a friend or family member by the decedent
  • The revelation that a presumed child of the deceased is not that person’s biological child
  • A stash of money unknown about by the deceased spouse

Some few secrets may make family members happy — amassed wealth that no one was aware of, for example. Other secrets may be surprising but, in some cases, appreciated, such as the appearance of a long-lost relative. Some secrets, however, create trouble and turmoil, both legally and emotionally. If a sudden heir appears out of nowhere, that person may be viewed by the family as a money-grubber and a threat to family stability, since he or she is concrete evidence of an extramarital affair or a previously unknown marriage. Nonetheless, this person may end up being an integral, accepted member of the group.

Family secrets are not as rare as you might think. On many occasions, they are revealed as deathbed confessions, stirring up mixed feelings in the close relatives gathered around the testator’s bedside. At least, though, such last-minute confessions give the family a little time to adjust to the new set of circumstances and to confer with their estate planning lawyer before the will is probated.

Your Estate Planning Attorney Must Know the Truth to Advise You Properly

Keeping secrets about your past will interfere with your lawyer’s ability to guide you. Your attorney must be aware of all of your heirs, your accumulated wealth, and your debts in order to come up with a fair and legally binding estate plan. If you don’t reveal important truths, you will cause complex issues to arise after your death, perhaps causing your will to be contested. Such matters can tie up your assets for a prolonged period, leaving your family in difficult financial straits.

It is much more responsible and kinder to family members to reveal such secrets while you are alive, alert, and able to explain the specifics of the case. Though it will be uncomfortable and will undoubtedly cause conflict, you owe it your loved ones to clarify what they will be facing when you die, and answer the inevitable questions that result from your revelation. Perhaps even more significantly, if you keep secrets relevant to your estate, you hamstring your attorney, not allowing him or her to make the necessary preparations to have your wishes followed.

How Your Estate Planning Attorney Can Help

It is important that you choose an estate planning attorney who is empathic as well as extremely competent to handle the complex issues surrounding family secrets. Your attorney can assist you in making sure that [1] all of your designated beneficiaries receive the inheritance you want them to have [2] a child you feel doesn’t need a portion of your estate, or is undeserving of inheriting it, will not be a beneficiary of your estate [3] even though you have kept a relationship secret for years, you can decide to include a child from that relationship as a beneficiary [4] that you make certain to prepare for paying off any secret accumulated debt at the time of your death and [5] make any secret bank accounts or investments are dispersed according to your wishes.

If you have chosen the right estate planning attorney, he or she may also provide you with a venue for bringing your secret to light in a controlled environment. With your attorney present, you may find it much easier to divulge and explain your past to your loved ones. Your attorney will be there to explain any and all legal ramifications so that your family comes away feeling safe and protected, even if a bit shaken by the news.