My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant and a partner with a National Accounting Firm in Toronto. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are written solely in my personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which I am affiliated. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humor/sarcasm. You've been warned.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Is Your Estate Planning Horizontally Challenged?

In November 2011, I wrote a blog titled “How your Family Dynamic can affect your Estate Planning”. In that post, I proposed that you must consider vertical and horizontal issues in respect of your estate planning.

Vertical issues are decisions made by parents that will affect their children and potentially the way in which their children view them after death. These decisions would include choices made in your will such as who is the executor and how you distribute your assets and issues outside your will, such as which child you will pass the reins to run the family business.

Horizontal issues relate to the interrelationship of your children, such as sibling rivalries and past jealousies and perceived parental favouritism. These issues may be exacerbated by vertical decisions made by parents and thus I suggested any parent who does not consider these horizontal relationships runs the risk of creating a divisive wedge amongst their children.

Since I wrote this post, I have seen these horizontal issues play out a couple of times where parents estate planning included unequal distributions in their wills. I won’t provide specifics, but you generally see unequal distributions for three main reasons:

1. One child essentially becomes the caregiver while the other children are "no shows" and the parent in essence “rewards” that child.

2. One child’s financial position is weaker than the other children, so the parent assists them with a greater inheritance and/or help while alive.

3. One child was always the black sheep.

Everyone is entitled to deal with their estate as they wish and there is no law that says you have to leave your estate equally to all your children or even leave any of it to them, as opposed to say charity.

However, if you are like most people and you wish to keep your wealth and assets within the family, you need to understand that you can’t always have your cake and eat it too. By this I mean where your children have a good relationship, you cannot expect that you will not put a strain on this relationship if you provide unequal distributions. In most cases, human nature causes jealousy or envy of some kind and can ruin a good sibling relationship.

In cases where your children do not have a good relationship, some parents, as they are in failing health, request that the children try and improve their relationship; yet the parent adds to the strained relationship by favouring one child over the other in their will (not that equalizing is any guarantee you will change your children's relationship).

For most people, this is not an issue. But, if you have unequal distributions in your will or estate planning, you may have to decide what your greatest priority is: providing one child with more assets or keeping harmony among your children. Accomplishing both may not be possible. Regardless, there is no assurance that if you bite the bullet and equalize your estate, that some obscure or trivial issue will not cause friction amongst your children.

There is no right or wrong answer here and you may say, children be dammed, I am distributing my assets as I see fit. I am just pointing out that you must be realistic and if your prime objective is keeping peace among your children, consider both vertical and horizontal issues.

This site provides general information on various tax issues and other matters. The information is not intended to constitute professional advice and may not be appropriate for a specific individual or fact situation. It is written by the author solely in their personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which they are affiliated. It is not intended to constitute professional advice, and neither the author nor the firm with which the author is associated shall accept any liability in respect of any reliance on the information contained herein. Readers should always consult with their professional advisors in respect of their particular situation.

2 comments:

  1. I love the model you use and the idea of classifying estate issues as horizontal or vertical. Great article but I would disagree with your contention that "you may have to decide what your greatest priority is: providing one child more assets or keeping harmony..." I would contend there are lots of situations where an equal distribution would, in fact, lead to disharmony, especially if the financial situation of the beneficiaries is so different. So my quibble with the article is automatically assuming equal distributions lead more directly to harmony...not always the case! Regards

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    Replies
    1. Hi Alan

      Good point, I agree with you. I should have considered your alternative in addition.

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