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The family meeting is key to successful planning, but when and how do you carry one out?

The Family Meeting is Key to Successful Planning

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We wrote this article together knowing we are both firm believers in the benefits of family meetings for our clients, yet we do not totally agree on how a family meeting should look or be carried out. If you do not already, we both hope you will consider making family meetings a part of your practice.


A significant part of the planning we elder law attorneys engage in is a variation of estate planning. As we prepare documents, we get direction from our clients as to whom they wish to name as fiduciaries in various capacities. Most of the time, the documents are prepared not because the client is about to die or become incapacitated, rather just in case. The goal is to engage in responsible planning that will bring predictability of outcome and minimize the burdens on the named agents should our client die or become incapacitated.

But stop and think of it a moment: Does our work help people live out their lives the way they want? Does our work make the task agents will need to shoulder as easy as possible? Let me suggest that the answer is a sharp no, and h*!# no. Here is why I answer the way I do.

Though the client is the one who we listen to, the reality is that the client will not be the one to use the documents. When the client dies, it is the trustee or executor who will read the trust or will; when the client falls ill, it is the agent under the power of attorney who will use the document. Yet, we confer with our clients and seldom ensure the transmission of the information to the named fiduciaries firsthand. We “assume” that the agents will be able to figure it out. The agents are generally loving and caring family members or loved ones of our client. And our clients relay, with pride, that their agents have promised they will never let our clients end up in nursing homes. But how will they accomplish this?

 How effective is this planning when it comes to helping our clients create predictable outcomes and make the task on the agents as easy as it could be? Research shows that though a large majority of Americans want to be able to live out their lives at home, only 30% of Americans achieve that goal.1 And other research reveals that 69% of all incapacitated people will start feeling guilt that they have become the very burden to their loved ones they hoped planning would help them avoid.2 Not a resounding vote about the effectiveness of our planning methodology.


I agree with Rajiv. A family meeting — a meeting where a client and their family or involved loved ones all participate — can have many benefits including to: help clients and family understand the possibilities of the future; openly discuss the client’s aging wishes and their feasibility; obtain buy-in from family members; reduce the probability of family misunderstandings; and increase trust (or at least awareness) among the client’s family.


Negative outcomes can be avoided with a family meeting. The notion of a family meeting is based on the reality that, in the end, aging is a family affair. For that reason, estate planning can never be complete until all those who have been named in the documents understand the responsibilities the documents bestow unto them, and know the resources that are at their beck and call to make carrying out their loved ones’ wishes an easier lift.

To me, a family meeting is not just a nice thing to do, nor is it easy to pull off without a lot of preparation — it is an absolute must to call our planning complete. The point of the family meeting is to drill and train and practice how the agent will manage events that will trigger the need for the agent to act.

 Let me illustrate. The client is laying in a hospital bed, unable to communicate. The nurse is having a discussion with the agent. The agent is told, “Your parent is going to be okay. Which means we need to start thinking about discharging your parent to a rehab center. Here is a list of 8 to 10 rehab centers. Please pick the one where you would like us to discharge your parent.” How will the agent answer? Will this be the answer the client is hoping for?

Another illustration: What will the client’s incapacity mean for the agent? The agent has to act. Which means that the agent may have to pay bills, file taxes, manage finances, keep the house in good repair, take the pet to the vet, manage health-care-related appointments and tasks, manage rental properties, sell the parent’s law practice (speaking of us attorneys), and more. But, the thinking goes, that because the client has a power of attorney (immediate, with gifting powers no less), the client will not be a burden on the agent. What a joke! We know we will have the agent engage in all sorts of time-consuming and hair-pulling tasks, but we promise that because of the power of attorney the client will not have these tasks become a burden on the agent. Get the point?

Without the benefit of a family meeting, the client and the fiduciaries will assume that all will be easy to manage. This, in my opinion, is what leads to the misery of 70% of Americans not being able to live out their lives in their home and 69% of Americans feeling guilty that they have become a burden they hoped never to become.


I typically work from a mediation and social work perspective which appears more relaxed and less authoritative than the attorney perspective. I believe a family meeting should allow all parties to walk away with something and to have a say in the decisions made or, at the very least, expose differences of opinion. When people are invited to weigh in, they are often more willing to hear another’s views and be flexible. When I conduct family meetings, I invite all parties (that the client chooses) to come together in one place, educate them about the client’s wishes, and offer the opportunity for the invited family members to share their concerns and feelings. Most importantly, I ensure all involved have heard the client’s wishes at the same time with the same words.

Long before I went to law school I volunteered as a neighbourhood mediator for families living in military housing. We mostly mediated disputes between neighbours. Often, the most critical part of the mediation was to allow the participants to voice their views and feelings. Amazingly, neighbours began to speak to each other and become a community again. Unfortunately, not all those mediations settled well, especially if a bully or completely inflexible person was involved. The same is true with family meetings. A meeting gives the attorney the opportunity to understand the kind of family the client has. Some work very well together. When it is clear one or more family members won’t help or cooperate, the attorney is better equipped to advise clients and even help them choose directions. Some clients can be blindly hopeful that their family will just step up and serve with no advance understanding. A family meeting can help attorneys manage their clients’ blind side.


Concluding an estate planning session without a family meeting is like playing in the Super Bowl or playing a trombone in an orchestra without practice. Sure, you know how to play football or the trombone, but will you fit in and execute your part as expected? That is what happens when agents must step up and manage someone else’s life.

A family meeting can solve a lot of problems. It is the practice before the big event. It is making sure that the client’s thinking and the agent’s understanding are on the same page; that all family members know what is expected; and that there is clarity about what resources are available to the agent to make their task easier to pull off.


When is it time to call a family meeting? Unlike Rajiv, I don’t see the need to insist on one for every planning situation. In my office we usually offer one when we hear that the client is concerned about communication — about their children working together, cheating each other, distrusting each other, taking advantage, etc. It may appear that we are more concerned for the children than our clients, but don’t be fooled. If children treat siblings poorly, they are likely to treat parents poorly also. A family meeting can flush out intentions and bring fairness to the situation. Most importantly, it can provide the peace of mind our clients need to settle on a certain plan.

Other times my office recommends family meetings are when the parent wishes to remain in the home while the children push for a facility placement; when one child seems to have given up time and income for the parent and the siblings don’t understand the cost; when one child lives with the parent and remains dependent upon the parent and unaware of the parent’s decline or burden; or when one spouse has a serious health issue or dies and the children seem unaware of the burden on the other spouse. It is especially helpful to have family meetings when some family members live in town while others live away. Here in Florida, we deal with many clients who have no children living close by.


Family meetings should be routinely offered because they accomplish four things:

 • Mutual Understanding: The family meeting gives clients a chance to articulate the outcomes they desire.

• Role Acceptance: The family meeting creates a forum where the fiduciaries accept their responsibilities and duties with the rest of the family as witnesses.

• Transparency: The family meeting makes clear the client’s desire for transparency.

• Conflict Avoidance: Addressing the previous three items minimizes the chance of family feuds.

Family meetings are powerful, but they’re not easy conversations to have. Think about the subject matter. We are talking frankly and openly about life coming to an end as we have known it thus far. I have facilitated thousands of family meetings for my clients over the years, and there have been many emotional (and some tearful) moments. But this exercise brings the planning to life. It is no longer just a theoretical possibility.

 With over two decades of experience holding family meetings, I can attest to the fact that an effectively held family meeting will bring predictability of outcome, make the agent’s task easier, and minimize the chances of family disputes — exactly what your clients want from you.


While we may not agree on how often or when to hold family meetings, and we may not carry them out in the same manner (Rajiv focuses more on education and I focus more on communication), I can assure you that we both agree on the need and benefits of family meetings, however you carry them out.

We are happy to hear from you. Contact Rajiv at 253-838-3454 or, or contact April at 727-343-8959 or

Need assistance planning for your successful retirement? Give us a call! 1.877.762.4464

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