Just as the courts are juggling with multiple definitions of family, so too are families today finding that there’s no single “”right” answer. Rather, they must ask the right questions and come up with answers that work for now and have enough flexibility for what the future might hold.

It’s funny: words have their ordinary, everyday usage but then when you commit them to writing – in a law, a contract, a will, a trust, and so on – words can become pretty tricky. While “marriage” as a legal term has been a hot topic as of late, by far the trickiest word in the estate planning lexicon is simply “family.”

It’s hard to find an estate plan that has nothing to do with family, and the great majority of them are all about family, so how could there be any ambiguity? WealthManagement tracks some of the practical problems in a recent article titled, “What is a “Family?”

You see, the problems with the definitions of family have less to do with federal or state law (unlike “marriage”) because it can be defined by the person actually planning his or her estate.

The original article discusses three different contexts and each only muddies the definitions of family. For example, consider a “family trust” established in 1910 to serve multiple generations. Did the person establishing such a trust foresee how the family would look like in 2013 after divorces, second marriages, children out of wedlock, same-sex partners and all other manners of contemporary occurrences?

What is a trustee of such a “family trust” to do?

Are we any better in imagining the future as we write our own estate plans today? If you think about it, even without considering the social mores matters, there are potential family problems whenever a trust lasts for multiple generations. After all, with every generation that comes along the number of potential beneficiaries that comes along tends to grow exponentially. Over time, each generation is less related and less connected to the others and the original maker of the trust.

All of this highlights the importance of working with an experienced estate planning attorney.

So what is “family” to you and is that what your documents say in their black and white?

Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.
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