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. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How your Family Dynamic can affect your Estate Planning

Estate planning is a complicated and delicate process. Where you have more than one child, the planning process is full of minefields, some are in clear sight, but many are hidden. Parents have to navigate these minefields with respect to the determination of executors, the distribution of family heirlooms and the distribution of hard assets. The above decisions may be impacted by the financial wherewithal of your children, your relationship with your children’s spouses, your grandchildren or lack thereof, and in some cases, favouritism of certain of your children.

The above are what I call vertical family hierarchy issues. These are issues resulting from parents making decisions that will affect their children and potentially, the way their children will view their parents after death.

What parents do not often consider is how these vertical decisions impact horizontally: i.e. how the interrelationship of your children must be considered in your estate planning. Any parent who does not consider these relationships runs the risk of creating a divisive wedge amongst their children as sibling rivalry and jealousies may rear their ugly heads.

In this blog, I will attempt to identify several estate planning issues that not only have vertical consequences, but also have horizontal consequences requiring parents to consider their children’s relationships in context of their planning.

The Family Business

Where there is a family business and the succession plan is to pass on the business to the next generation, several issues must be considered. The issues include the following:

How many children have an interest in the family business?

If you have more than one child, is one specific child best suited to the role of CEO or president? If so, based on your children’s current relationship(s), do you foresee them working together or will they butt heads or worse? If the eldest child is named president, have you reinforced a perception the younger child has held for years, that the eldest is favoured and always assumed the most capable?

How do you value the business?

This is not an issue if all the children are given equal shares of the business, since they will have an equal ownership no matter the actual value attributed to the company. But what if you decide to leave the business to one child and equalize a child or the other children with say cash or other assets? The value of the business can fluctuate wildly over the years, with the result being that the child who inherits the shares may in essence have inherited a significantly larger asset than the other child(ren). Alternatively, the shares of the company may prove to be worth substantially less than the assets distributed to the other child(ren) if business conditions cause the value of the business to diminish. As a parent, can you do anything to avoid potential disparities in value? I have seen situations where asset distributions were equal at the time of death, but the inherited business grew astronomically and the children who did not inherit the company shares felt wronged by their parents.

Finally, if you have undertaken an estate freeze while alive, (see my blog on introducing a family trust as a shareholder and the related discussion on estate freezes) which child will inherit the voting shares? You risk alienating the children who do not receive the voting shares, since they may feel that you did not think they had enough acumen to vote and run the company.

The Family Cottage

The family cottage is often a contentious asset. In some families all the children want to keep ownership of the cottage and in some families only one or two siblings want the cottage. As a parent, you must speak to your children and determine who wants the cottage. Where more than one child wants the cottage, you have to consider whether those children have a good relationship and if they will be able to share ownership of the cottage without starting a world war. If not, do you have to consider selling the cottage in your later years to avoid creating a divisive issue amongst your children?

Another important factor to consider is whether the children interested in keeping the cottage have the financial wherewithal to pay their share of the cottages expenses on a yearly basis? If not, how do you overcome this potential issue, especially if one child has the financial resources and another does not?

Also, where there is a large inherent gain on the cottage, you have to determine whether your estate will be able to pay the income taxes without forcing a sale of the cottage and causing the estate to unwind your original intention to keep the cottage in the family? In this case, you may be able to use life insurance to cover off this issue.

The Will

A will may be construed as a document that reflects a parent’s opinion of their children and confirms the children’s opinion of themselves. If you infer one child is more responsible than the others (by selecting a certain child(ren) as an executor and excluding others), you risk igniting the fire of past resentments amongst the children and potentially causing resentment of you even in death.

Assuming you can navigate the determination of the executor(s) amongst your children without creating jealousy or animosity (if not, a corporate executor may be required), how do you distribute your assets upon death in a manner that mitigates any damage that can occur to your children’s relationships?

The distribution of material items is fraught with danger. How does one ever balance sentimentality and value? If you provide one child a sentimental heirloom, you risk that child complaining the other children got more value, while the other children complain they were not left sentimental heirlooms. What if you have art? How do you balance the value of art that has significant value differentials?

What about the situation where one child has been financially successful and another has not. If your will provides for a greater distribution to the child with less money, how do you ensure you do not create resentment with the financially well-off child? The less well-off child, who should be ecstatic, may actually be insulted, as they interpret the larger inheritance as their parents saying they were "financial losers" as opposed to being grateful for the larger inheritance. In these cases, one must tread carefully, but an unequal allocation may be more readily accepted where you explain your reasoning to your children before your death.

Another issue is grandchildren. Where the number of grandchildren is different in each family or one child does not have any family, do you give equal amounts to each family or equal amounts per child? How about where one of your children may be incapable of providing for a grandchild’s education and you feel a trust would be appropriate? Will any consideration other than equal consideration be construed as favouritism by your children?

Finally, many parents have provided loans to their children to assist with university, purchasing a house or what have you. How do you deal with prior gifts or loans? If you forgive the loans, you may have an unequal distribution and cause an issue amongst your children? Thus, you may want to consider a reduction of any distributions in the will for any outstanding loans.

This whole blog may be construed as ludicrous on a certain level. Some may say this blog is evidence as to why they will not leave anything to their children. Others may say I will leave my children whatever I feel like and if the distribution is unequal, so be it. However, it has been my experience that the majority of parents truly do not want to create any dissension amongst their children and aim to provide for an equal distribution. Even though they will have passed on, many parents still don’t want to alienate any of their children or cause resentment upon their death.

The blogs posted on The Blunt Bean Counter provide information of a general nature. These posts should not be considered specific advice; as each reader's personal financial situation is unique and fact specific. Please contact a professional advisor prior to implementing or acting upon any of the information contained in one of the blogs.


  1. Mark, excellent article. I had never really consciously considered my planning from the vertical and horizontal perspectives, interesting.

  2. Thx dad of 3. I have been told that some people r having trouble commenting who use IE, if so pls try firefox, this is a Blogger issue and I cannot do anything. Thx

  3. Great post. The cottage discussion is particularly interesting...