Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 6.
Facing down your own mortality and diving into estate planning isn't pleasant, but your family will be as unprepared for your death as you are if you don't act.
RBC Wealth Management estimates that $3.2 trillion will transfer to the next generation in the U.S. within the next few years, as Baby Boomers implement their estate plans. However, RBC also points out that just 30% of investors have a full estate plan in place, while another 30% say they've done absolutely nothing to make sure their estate is transferred to their heirs.
However, even talking about estate planning with family can make investors uncomfortable. Only 37% of them had conversations with their beneficiaries about their inheritance.
"It's a trend that appears to repeat itself generation after generation," said Tom Sagissor, president of RBC Wealth Management-U.S. "But there are encouraging signs that the next generation of inheritors will fare better. Parents today are educating their children about wealth at an earlier age and doing a better job of engaging them in conversations about the inheritance they will one day receive."
It's a slow process. According to a recent study by Fidelity Investments, 90% of parents and their adult children say it's important to have frank conversations about estate plans and wills. That said, though 70% of parents say they've had those discussions with their children, only about half of their adult children say that's the case. The study also found that more than two-thirds of adult children and their parents disagree about the appropriate time to initiate conversations about the parents' finances.
"When it comes to legacy planning, generally speaking, the sooner the better," said Kevin Ruth, head of wealth planning and personal Trust at Fidelity Investments. "Failing to have an estate plan in place can lead to significant family confusion once a beloved family member passes. Too often, it may result in costly mistakes or the wishes of a loved one's estate and legacy plans going unfulfilled."
The RBC survey notes that U.S. parents are still doing a better job addressing these issues than their global contemporaries. About 60% of parents have already started walking their children through the process, well ahead of the 51% of Canadian and 53% of British parents who've done the same. As a result, nearly half of those U.S. parents seem confident that their children will continue to grow their inherited wealth. Just 39% of parents in the U.K. and 42% in Canada can make similar claims.
That said, those families who've handed down significant wealth through the generations tend to handle it more smoothly. Of the heirs surveyed by RBC, 36% didn't need professional help after receiving their inheritance. Not surprisingly, a corresponding 37% of those in the U.S. who have inherited wealth now have a full strategy, and 58% have a will. However, among first-timers, just 20% have a full wealth transfer strategy and 50% have a will.
That's why it's important to have a plan in place early and to educate heirs about their inheritance before adulthood. Not surprisingly, 70% of those who've had those conversations before age 18 are confident in their understanding of financial maters. Also, among parents who have a strategy in place and who've begun talking to their heirs about the significance of their inheritance, 58% are confident that their fortunes will live on.
"Discussions around estate and succession planning can be emotionally charged, so families tend to shy away from them," said Bill Ringham, vice president and senior wealth strategist at RBC Wealth Management-U.S. "But for families that want to leave a legacy and ensure the nest egg they have built is protected across generations, communication and planning are key."
Even families handling less substantial assets can benefit from early discussions. The Fidelity study found that 70% children had no idea of the value of their parent's estate. On average, that value was underestimated by $278,000. It doesn't help that 80% of parents think their children know where to find important documents including wills, power of attorney and healthcare proxies, while only 66% of children know where those documents are. Considering that a family may include stepchildren, in-laws, former spouses and others, an estate plan is necessary to clarify who plays what role and receives which portion of the estate. Without an estate plan, you're inviting family conflict and leaving it to courts to decide how your estate is distributed.
If you want to control your assets, maintain your family's privacy, have a say in who your executor is, keep your heirs out of probate court, make sure your debts are paid and make sure your named beneficiaries receive their inheritance immediately, a sound financial plan helps. Putting that plan together can also help avoid Federal estate taxes, state estate and inheritance taxes and income tax penalties for early withdrawals from an IRA.
For those just looking for a foundation for their estate plan, Fidelity suggests addressing the basics first. Factor in your children, the size of your estate, any new family member and children with disabilities into your plan. Once you get organized and find an estate planning attorney, keep your plan fluid by revisiting it every so often and making sure it still reflects your wishes. Finally, schedule time with your family to discuss your wishes and the roles you'd like everyone to play. As a result of all of the above, the study found that 85% of parents who have had conversations with their children about estate planning felt more at ease about it later.
"While it is human nature to avoid thinking about one's own mortality, leaving the next generation in good hands with the information they need to be successful can help build a stronger family foundation," Fidelity's Ruth says. "It may also provide you with greater peace of mind and ensure your decisions and wishes are carried out exactly the way you want."