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WRITE IT DOWN: Leaving instructions for what to do after you’re gone can help defer potential emotional issues surrounding succession.

Consider how grief can impact family

Family members dealing with traumatic change act in different ways; you can take action to avoid problems.

By Michael Dolan

“You never really truly know a person, until you have divided inheritance with them.” This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, and many other individuals. Clearly its wisdom was not stumbled upon by only one individual. The wisdom it exposes deserves a more in-depth focus.

The unfortunate reality of human nature, and of relationships among family members, is that things change when a death occurs. Sometimes old wounds are healed. Sometimes new wounds are opened. Sometimes those who are reserved under the influence of the deceased become assertive. Sometimes those who are empowered under the influence of the deceased become meek.

Scientific studies have shown that people move through the grieving process in similar ways. And they have also shown that no one is free from the realities of the grieving process. How each person reacts to the different parts of the grieving process is always an unknown until they are in it. And they will react differently to the grieving process based on the relationship to the individual, the event over which they are grieving, and the other stresses and pressures of their life at the time.

Mark Twain is also often quoted as having said, “There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it, and when he can.”

When you are planning for the transition of your family, your assets, your farm or ranch, and your legacy, speculation has to be part of it because you are trying to predict what will happen in the future. But speculating overoptimistically may present a significant danger.

Avoiding assumptions
If we plan assuming our family will conduct themselves in the same manner they did before we died, we may set the plan up for failure. We tend to envision how our family members will “work things out.” As we run this rosy scenario through our minds, we discount the need to leave directions or instructions regarding how to deal with matters if a dispute arises, because “our children have always gotten along.”

Wisdom, science and most of our own family’s histories should prompt us to act differently. Leaving thorough directions and instructions for our families is critical to help families move through this trying time and new environment. What to do with assets, and when, and defining who should be making decisions are critical aspects of these instructions. Each family member has a different perspective regarding receiving his or her inheritance. To leave simple instructions that say to divide your assets equally among your three children, and naming one of your children to decide how best to do so, is a recipe for failure. The outcome in these situations is often the liquidation of critical family assets and the destruction of relationships.

If you leave detailed instructions about how you want things handled after your death, at least if they don’t like the outcome they are upset with you — not their siblings. And if you leave them some perspective about why you left those instructions, they may not even be upset with you.

Dolan, an attorney, helps farm and ranch families achieve comprehensive estate, succession and legacy planning objectives. He is the principal of Dolan & Associates, P.C. in Brighton and Westminster, Colo. Learn more on his website,

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