A Discussion About Behavior that Challenges

“Well, Laura,” I said, as I glanced down at my notes, “do you want to leave anything to your grandchildren, as you had planned before?”  We had just gone over her desired changes to her estate plan.  One of the main things she was changing was how much she was leaving her children.  She asked me to remove the lifetime trust for her son, and leave him $13.00.  At first, I was certain I had misunderstood.  “Do you mean $13,000.00?” I asked.  “No,” she replied, “$13.00.  After discussing my son’s behavior with my Rabbi, that was my Rabbi’s suggestion.”  Of course, Laura (not her real name) had also painfully described her son’s behavior to me.  She had shared with me his capacity to harm himself rather than improve himself when he had money in his hands in the past.  Originally, we had set up her son’s share of Laura’s trust so that it was always under someone else’s control.  Under those circumstances, she had made some provision for her grandchildren as well.  But, unfortunately, as they grew older . . . “Nothing for the grandchildren.  In my thinking, you need to actually have a relationship and put effort into maintaining it if you are to receive anything.”   With an understanding of the sadness which brought about these decisions, I drafted the documents to reflect her wishes. 

I don’t generally like the idea of trying to control someone with wealth.  Keeping control over funds after you die, while possible, is more difficult in practice than most clients understand.  However, keeping that control is often necessary to ensure that a person you intend to benefit when you die will actually benefit rather than harm themselves (or others) from the wealth you leave them.

Substance abuse and dependency are what the lay person thinks of as the biggest issue when leaving shares for challenging children.  However, many of my clients want to set up structures that model good financial behavior for their beneficiaries.  Sometimes, a person is not wise with money and age alone doesn’t impart financial management skills to them.  In any situation where someone will need time to change, mature and learn, we draft trusts that distribute wealth slowly or upon need.  We leave the investment control and often the distribution control (who gets how much, when they get it), in the hands of stable, competent adults who have proven financial management skills.  That person can be a trusted friend, family member, or even sibling of the person whose share is being managed, but that choice needs to be carefully considered before being committed to paper.  

Many people come to me feeling like they must give an equal share to a challenging child simply because they are their child.  Sometimes, my clients feel responsible for a challenging child’s bad behavior and want to take care of them for life – a hint of codependency that perhaps helped foster the problem in the first place.  As your attorney, it’s not my role to challenge your desires, but rather to help you determine how best to accomplish your ultimate goals for your family with your estate plan.  Only my training and 20+ years of experience give me the perspective to thoroughly share all the available options after I have asked my clients what their desires are.  With enough gentle persistence and thoughtful questioning, I can help each client honestly discern what they really want to happen to their wealth.  

In your estate plan, you get to do largely what you want (within the bounds of California law).  Just because you CAN, however, I want to make clear that it just may not be wise to do something like give a challenging child with an ongoing problem a full share just because you feel you ‘must’ do so.  Explore your options with a qualified attorney who can review your options with you, help clarify your best choices, and carefully reflect those choices in your estate plan for you. and implement those options for you.  Most of all, make it a priority to plan ahead so that you can help those challenging children have the best possible outcome in life!