No. The short answer is that you do not have to tell your family (or your friends, your priest, your best friend or anyone else) what provisions you made in your estate planning documents. Your estate planning documents are private, and you can decide to keep them private for as long as you wish.
But let me play devil’s advocate. There are several important reasons you may want to disclose some (or all) of the provisions of your estate planning documents.
- You have minor children. If you have minor children, you will need to name a guardian of your minor children if you are not living. When you select a guardian, it makes sense to discuss with your chosen guardian or guardians that you have nominated them so that they can have a chance to ask you questions about how you believe your children should be raised if such an event occurred. Your selected guardians may be concerned about how they would support your children, whether you are able to leave assets for their care, etc. If any child has special needs or other issues that must be addressed, your selected guardians should have a chance to know what treatments are in place so they can provide continuity for your child or children.
- You are providing for your beneficiaries in differing amounts. Frequently I hear, “My mom/dad/grandmother/grandfather/spouse did not intent for his/her assets to be distributed in this manner.” And, I hear these statements regardless of how long the provisions have been in place, who his or her estate planning attorney was and whether the person making the statement was involved in the process. Discussing your estate plan with your family allows you to tell them that you do, in fact, intend to provide for your beneficiaries in the manner specified in your documents. It also allows you to answer their questions so they better understand your reasoning.
- You have a blended family. Estate plans for husbands and wives in blended families can be especially tricky. If you really do intend to leave your second husband with complete control over your assets – even if he might leave all those assets to a new spouse – then you need to let your children know that you have intentionally favored your spouse.
- You have a closely-held business. If you expect one of your children to inherit a business and your other assets to pass to your remaining children, then you should address these business succession issues in advance. Otherwise, your children may have unreasonable expectations of remaining in the business (even if they are not actively assisting with the day-to-day operations) long after you are gone. Additionally, your children need to understand which assets remain with the business to make sure that it continues as a going-concern.
- You are creating trusts for your beneficiaries, and they are not the (sole) trustee. If you are creating trusts and naming at least one other party as a co-trustee, then you should tell them that you have selected a (co-)trustee to help them. While no beneficiary enjoys hearing that you believe them to be a spendthrift, you do not trust his or her spouse/significant other or any of the other reasons that a trust is created, you can use this experience to educate your beneficiary(ies) about the positive reasons a trust can be used. You can also give them a chance to learn more about their responsibilities if you are appointing them as a co-trustee.
The discussion may not be an easy one, but ultimately you may save your family and the fiduciaries responsible for administering your estate plan from a great deal of hassle by having these important discussions while you can. Your estate planning attorney can even assist you with the discussions so that the exact terms are explained correctly.