Most of the time, I would advise parents not to do so. In the majority of cases, doing so will lead to more aggravation and feeling of uneasiness and resentment and, potentially, more fights and disputes for several reasons. Let’s take the example of parents in their 60s telling their children in their 40s what they’ll be receiving, the parents are essentially begging their children to complain to them: “Why am I getting this, or why can’t I have more or have it sooner? Also, “Why is that sibling getting this?” Parents need to be strong and decisive. By law, they don’t have to leave their children anything—and I think by almost asking their children and, thereby, almost making them partners in the process, they’re creating more issues than they’re solving.
Second, parents may live another 20, 30 or 40 years. For the rest of the their lives, their children are going to be driving them crazy, asking: “Hey I want more, sooner, why am I getting this?” and now, the parents can’t change their minds because if they do, the other sibling may say: “Wait a minute, I was supposed to get that. You told me 20 years ago, now I’m getting something different or less.” Parents shouldn’t be badgered by their children and should have the flexibility to change their minds and not be unduly influenced or bound by prior statements.
Last, parents should be seen as parents, with respect and admiration, and I think if they invite a discussion of what’s in their will or estate planning documents, the children will see dollar bills in place of their parents’ heads like those we see in cartoons.
Of course, every family and situation is different. I’m not saying never to tell the children, but parents should consider all the factors. One important factor is: Are the assets being divided equally? If so, it’s less likely there will be fights unless one child feels he should be receiving more, such as when a business is involved and one child is working in the business or made it more valuable.
Avi Z. Kestenbaum is an equity partner of the Long Island law firm Meltzer Lippe and the co-chair of the firm's Trusts & Estates Department.