Loaded Language: Do the Right Thing

The four-word phrase, “do the right thing,” occurs in many estate plan disasters. The phrase is simple, but people overload it with unbearable importance. The meaning of “do the right thing” may be different, depending on whether the speaker uses the phrase in instruction, assurance, hope, or accusation. This article discourages the reader from building an estate plan or business decision on “the right thing,” because it’s a shaky foundation.

Miscommunication of Estate Plan Instructions: Do the Right Thing

The familiar story of a parent instructing the oldest or most dependable child to “do the right thing” rarely ends well. First, the parent gives the child fiduciary responsibility without detailed instructions.

Then, parent makes ambiguous statements to the family that the child will “do the right thing.” This common estate plan pattern usually produces heartbreaking results, especially in families with stepchildren.

Misconceived Estate Plan Expectations: Do the Right Thing

Inaccurate estate plan expectations can cause as much family dysfunction as sloppy planning and poor communication. Consider, for instance, children’s expectation of their parent’s equal estate plan distributions. However, the parent may want to reward a local child for extra attentiveness. What do you think “do the right thing” will mean to the kids that moved to the city when they find out that their shares of the trust or estate are smaller than their local sibling’s share? Of course, the urbanites will expect their small-town sibling to share equally regardless of his entitlement.

Definition Problem of the “Right Thing”

Have you ever heard someone use an old word with a new meaning? Words and phrases change meaning over time, so poor estate plan word choices create big problems. Incomplete or unclear estate plan details describing the “right thing” contribute to family strife and heartache.

Character Problem of the “Right Thing”

A common estate plan and business decision failure occurs when the “right thing” depends on the “wrong person.” An incorruptible person resists temptation and coercion, but that kind of person is uncommon. A trustee, attorney-in-fact (under a power of attorney), or personal representative (under a last will and testament) must the incorruptible. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for a person’s materialistic and aggressive spouse to turn the person against his or her family. Other common factors behind failures to “do the right thing” include health crises, financial distress, and addictions to such things as gambling, alcohol, drugs, and pornography.

Ability and Willingness Problem of the “Right Thing”

No estate plan or business decision is stronger than the ability and willingness of the person on whom it depends. Even clearly communicated and confirmed instructions to an honorable person may become impossible or undesirable. For example, a task’s performance may become too difficult or undesirable if its cost escalates or a better alternative emerges. A great estate plan empowers reliable people with thorough details and flexible alternatives.

An Estate Plan for the “Best Thing” Achieves the “Right Thing”

An experienced estate planning attorney can help a family avoid these heartaches and disappointments. An expert estate planning attorney asks probing questions that expose vulnerabilities in a client’s assumptions and expectations. After the attorney and client discover hidden problems, they can plan with flexibility and detailed instructions to overcome the problems. Then, the estate plan’s flexibility and thoroughness can help the right people achieve the best possible outcome. After all, if an excellent estate plan can produce the best outcome, isn’t that the “right thing?”

About the Authors

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation;  a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

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