How would you split things up if you die together? Most difficult of all to consider, what if one of the children dies first? How would either of you distribute assets between the surviving spouse and children? As you can see, there are a lot of questions to answer.
Consider your wishes separately and together
There's so much emotion around these decisions that it might be easier if you and your wife think about your wishes separately, and then bring your ideas together.
Listen to each other's concerns and fears and be open to each other's attitudes about what's fair -- both for yourselves and for your children. There should be no guilt or blame here. You're talking about your individual legacies. Ideally, you'll honor each other's decisions and come to some general agreements.
Talk to an estate-planning attorney
Once you've done the initial thinking, consult with an estate-planning attorney who can help you consider the various scenarios. He or she will then discuss the ways to make sure your assets are distributed according to your wishes. One option is a living trust, which gives you control of your assets during your lifetime, and then passes them directly to your designated heirs upon your death, avoiding probate and providing potential tax benefits.
Your attorney may also suggest a Qualified Terminable Interest Property (QTIP) Trust or life estate. With this type of trust, your assets could provide income for your wife until her death or remarriage, and then they would pass to the beneficiaries of the trust -- your children or whomever you name.
You'll also want to discuss how you want to distribute your personal possessions (for example, jewelry, household items, etc., many of which may have sentimental as well as financial value), and the best way to designate beneficiaries for life insurance and retirement accounts.
When the kids are old enough to understand, share your plans as well as the reasons for your decisions. Setting everyone's expectations about their inheritance is important to avoid family resentments when the time comes. The thinking -- and talking -- that you do now may not only mean greater family accord in the future, but also greater family harmony today.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "It Pays to Talk." You can e-mail Carrie at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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