Locating the Missing A Morse Family Tradition Since 1939

Realistic Estate Planning Means Knowing Your Beneficiaries

Even the most well-drafted of wills can leave room for undesirable effects and family fractures, which is why a more holistic approach to estate planning is necessary.

Here we can see the wisdom of the old adage, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." Even in cases where much time and effort are poured into the making of a will, the unforeseen events which so often occur as the disbursement process is being completed underline the need for taking into account the big picture when it comes to estate planning. This will inevitably include any beneficiaries, and along with them, their characters, behaviors, and habits. Unless all of these are taken into account, any estate is left open to the capriciousness of chance.

This type of story has been played out again and again throughout history. A person wants to leave behind the legacy he or she has built to the next generation so that those named are provided with what is needed to achieve their goals and carry on cherished endeavors.

In order to illustrate just how important it is to keep these matters in mind, it can be instructive to remember where others have gone wrong. The issue is pertinent no matter what the value of the estate, but we must remember that even the most affluent families face the same concerns.

One of those stories that has helped to cement the idea of the young, come-by-night wife of an aging wealthy man into the public mind was that of the fortune of J. Seward Johnson Sr. The bulk of the estate, which was reported to be worth up to $500 million at the time of his death, was left to his wife, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, known as Basia, who had come into the Johnson household as a maid and married Mr. Johnson when she was 34 and he was 76.

The apparent injustice of the situation was not only clear to his six children, all but one of whom had been excluded from the will, it was also played out in the national media. In addition, as the trial dragged on, all kinds of ugly family business was brought to light. In the end, in the words of one prominent attorney, William D. Zabel, "The Will was, to put it charitably, totally rewritten by the contestants. The result: any resemblance to Seward Johnson's actual last Will seemed purely coincidental. Mr. Johnson should be a veritable whirling dervish in his grave, because all his expressed intentions were flouted."

Barbara Goldsmith, who wrote a book on the ordeal, commented, "[…] this is a portrait of a society that's voraciously interested in celebrity, power and money, and of a legal establishment that has totally begun to deteriorate and whose standards need looking into. It's a morality tale: It's saying to America, watch out for your values.''

Another extreme case was that of James Brown. The godfather of soul left behind an estate worth several million dollars. His intentions were made quite clear. Although he left behind a relatively large number of benefactors after a life that appears terribly disorganized in comparison to his will, the majority was to go to a trust to provide disadvantaged students from Georgia with scholarships. In reality, the trust was left impotent for years because Brown's intent was not properly enforced.

After court challenges from the family, in a decision that was later called an "unprecedented misdirection" by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the S.C. attorney general intervened. He redirected funds to Brown's children, grandchildren, and a woman that he had married, but who had been left out of the will.

Clearly, all wills are not as complicated or contested as the above examples. Your estate may not be as complex in terms of assets or beneficiaries, but that does not preclude the need to think and plan realistically. While extreme, these instances serve prove a point. To be as sure as possible that an estate is distributed in accordance with the spirit of a will, some amount of foresight is necessary. Because the parties involved in the disbursal of an estate can sometimes have more influence over shaping outcomes than a testator may realize upon drafting, it is important to think about how these players are likely to behave in their respective roles.

There are a number of ways to anticipate this, and it is always good to start early. One of the most constructive things that can be done is to establish a channel of ethical and financial communication with potential heirs. Creating pre-inheritance experiences in which heirs have the opportunity to work in a group to make financial decisions can set the foundation of greater understanding and give the grantor the chance to assess the heir's financial literacy and decision making skills. Because the amounts involved in this type of "test run" can be a very small portion of the entire estate, it can also be a particularly effective, relatively low risk way to both pass on valuable life lessons and identify heirs who are especially fit for leadership roles.

A gradual introduction to the landscape of family finances can lay the groundwork for a smoother transition from one generation to the next and help avoid messy or unintended outcomes. Also, during this period, patterns of behavior that are not in keeping with the interests of the family or the grantor's wishes can be identified and made clear. After this is done, structures can then be set into place to fine tune the functions of so that, should problems arise – issues of irresponsible behavior or addiction, for example – a particular heir's access to capital and decision making responsibilities may be limited.

Taking into consideration such things as identifying all of the potential heirs with a will, and perhaps heirs who could conceivably inherit by statute if the will was unacceptable by the court, can prove to be invaluable to those administering the proceedings. Exact whereabouts and specific relationships should be stated, Social Security numbers may be included, and non-relative beneficiaries should be delineated as such.

Creating a culture of understanding around the stewardship of family assets is not an easy task. Like an estate itself, it requires hard work and time. But the effort would not be misplaced. Turning aside from the abundant warning cases like those mentioned above and the multitude of others, we must remember that the vision of a harmonious family, whose capital serves as a tool for the enrichment of the lives of all its members, is something to strive for.

Like physical health, this is not something that can be achieved once and for all. It needs continual attention and care. If a named beneficiary passes away prior to the decedent, that needs to be addressed. With a little luck and a lot of planning and diligence, a well-managed estate can continue to work for a family as a healthy body does for an individual, securing prosperity and happiness for all its members.