Repairing Family Rifts: The Transformative Role of Estate Planning

The expanded role of estate planning – from documents to relationships: 

The foundational part of traditional estate planning has been to arrange for documents that manage the distribution of your assets in case of incapacity and after your death. As such, estate planning has typically focused primarily on legal and financial considerations. However, estate planning can be a great opportunity to reflect on your life and introduce changes to make the best use of your remaining days. Communication remains the single best tool to support successful estate plans. Good estate planning extends well beyond legal documents and assets. It helps provide direction, meaning and purpose in your life. In fact, estate planning presents a unique opportunity for individuals to assess their relationships. Many of our clients take the opportunity to address estrangement or other broken relationships. In this blog post, we will highlight the transformative power of estate planning in repairing estranged relations and fostering healing within families. 

Understanding Estrangement:  

Before delving into the role of estate planning, it is essential to understand the prevalence and factors contributing to estrangement. Studies suggest that approximately 11% of parents in the United States are estranged from at least one of their adult children. Another 27% of individuals experience estrangement from at least one sibling. Estrangement stems from various reasons, including family conflicts, unresolved issues, abuse, disagreements over values or lifestyle choices, mental health concerns, and substance abuse problems. These complex dynamics can fracture family relationships, leaving emotional wounds that may persist for years. 

Beyond the Documents–Meaning and Purpose in Estate Planning and Life:  

To fully appreciate the potential of estate planning in repairing estranged relationships, we must broaden our perspective beyond the legal documents. Estate planning is not merely about wills, trusts, and asset distribution. It is an opportunity for personal growth, reflection, and finding meaning and purpose in one’s life. By engaging in the estate planning process, individuals can assess their lives, examine their values, and make intentional choices about how they want to be remembered. This introspection can be the foundation for repairing estranged relations and fostering healing within families. 

As a first step, we ask our clients to name their beneficiaries. Then we ask them what wishes they have for each of them. Estrangement shows up in this initial step. Estranged from their son due to a history of drugs, one client couple discovered something in this first step.  They realized that they wanted their son to be free from his addiction. Having identified that goal, they provided opportunities in their estate planning documents for him to use their assets for drug treatment and medical treatment. He would be provided resources when he was successfully able to keep a job. But that wasn’t the amazing part. When they reached out to him to let him know after 10 years of silence, they began having regular phone calls with him. A relationship which they’d assumed was over was rekindled, thanks to their estate plan.  

Using Estate Planning to Repair Estranged Relations: How estate planning can help to mend strained relationships 

  1. Reflecting on the Importance of Family Relationships: Estate planning prompts people to reflect on the significance of their family relationships. It encourages them to consider the emotional impact of estrangement and recognize the value of healing those wounds.
  2. Facilitating Open and Honest Communication: Effective estate planning involves open and honest communication among family members. This provides a platform to address past issues, express feelings, and seek understanding. Engaging in sincere conversations can be instrumental in bridging gaps and fostering reconciliation.
  3. Identifying Common Goals and Values: Estate planning offers an opportunity for family members to identify and align their common goals and values. By finding shared objectives, individuals can build a stronger foundation for healing and rebuilding relationships.
  4. Addressing Past Issues and Seeking Forgiveness: Estate planning provides a structured environment to address past conflicts, misunderstandings, and hurts. It encourages individuals to take responsibility for their actions, apologize, and seek forgiveness. Through this process, old wounds can start to heal, leading to restored relationships.
  5. Establishing Mechanisms for Ongoing Dialogue: Estate planning allows for the creation of mechanisms that support ongoing dialogue within families. In fact, a successful estate plan requires it. This may involve designating a trusted family member or mediator to facilitate communication and help navigate potential conflicts. At the very least, all members of the estate plan team must know their roles and responsibilities. We offer family meetings in our office as a way to get started with difficult conversations.

Seeking Professional Guidance:  

Repairing estranged relationships within the context of estate planning can be life-transforming. Engaging the services of an experienced estate planning and elder law firm helps with this process. These professionals understand the emotional aspects involved in estrangement and can provide guidance, support and experience. They can assist in structuring estate plans that promote healing, facilitate family discussions, and consider the wishes of all parties. 

Another client surprised us when she asked us to add punitive language into her estate plan. We asked her if such harsh language and measures were appropriate. “They need to learn discipline” was her response. Her adult children were in their 50s. When we suggested that she might have been following a paradigm that worked for younger children that might not fit for a relationship with adult children, her face softened. She understood after all these years that she no longer had to protect or correct them. They were doing okay. Her eventual estate plan focused not on discipline, but on what opportunities she could provide for her children and grandchildren.  

Estate planning is not solely about legal documents and financial considerations. It is a powerful tool for personal growth, reflection, and repairing estranged relationships. By embracing estate planning as a means to assess one’s life and make intentional choices, individuals can foster healing within their families. This intergenerational healing has profound impact. With open communication, shared values, addressing past issues, and seeking forgiveness, estranged relationships can sometimes be repaired. Estate planning provides a unique opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of love, unity, and reconciliation. By seeking professional guidance and engaging in this transformative process, individuals can pave the way for a brighter future for themselves and their loved ones.