What is a family meeting in regards to probate?
Sometimes the personal representative, the new statutory term for the executor or executrix of the will, asks the attorney probating the estate to hold a “family meeting” for reading the will or more often for establishing how personal property is to be divided in-kind. (i.e. You walk away with the actual item.) Such meetings can be highly beneficial because it helps the person(s) really in charge to explain what will happen, while allowing the attorney to contain those dominating personalities that tend to bully, take control or believe their fair share is something more than what the will provides.
In amicable situations I’ve seen such family meetings double as a social gathering where everyone gets a number and turns are rotated to select items. A more valuable item like an antique hutch, original oil painting, or diamond brooch might be pre-valued in dollars or by the number of turns others will receive as only one person can actually take the hutch, the painting or the brooch. This is a way to keep selection on an equal footing. Fond memories of the departed and childhood are shared and the family unit strengthened. What no one wants can be donated to charity by agreement of all the named beneficiaries.
The good Lord has scattered the cantankerous among all the families of the earth; so more often family meetings for estate related purposes require a written agenda in a formal setting where some effort is made prior to the meeting to determine questions that are already on everyone’s minds and to get input from the family members on issues they perceive might arise. This allows the attorney to address the questions as part of his or her presentation to the family, create the right tone for the meeting and avoid putting more timid members on the spot. Likewise introducing a preselected plan for distribution rather than options is usually wise. The attorney should control the meeting and everyone should be given a copy of the Last Will and Testament and other key estate documents either before or at the meeting. Distribution of items actually occurs on a separate day.
Circulating pictures of items to be distributed either at the meeting, by mail, e-mail or Facebook is a good idea. It is also a good idea to let beneficiaries provide a written list of one to five items they want most prior to the meeting to help identify and sidestep early points of contention.
Technology allows out-of state family members to participate in real time on the day of distribution. A formal limited power of attorney can be given to another beneficiary that will be in attendance for those that can’t come in person. All the beneficiaries should have a clear understanding that they will sign a Receipt and Release for the items they receive. These forms are filed with the probate court and help ensure an orderly estate administration.
Sometimes beneficiaries don’t want any items, only cash. An estate, tag or yard sale that produces cash can help equalize the situation.
A productive family meeting and well organized distribution following can have a profound impact on the continuing positive interaction of family members with one another.
Disclaimer: Information contained in this column is meant to be of general information on frequently asked questions concerning disability, elder law, estate planning and probate law, and does not contain specific legal advice to a client. No attorney-client relationship is created by reading this column.