The Family Conference – Hull on Estates #96
Listen to The Family Conference
This week on Hull on Estates, Natalia and Allan discuss the Family Conference.
The Family Conference – Hull on Estates Podcast #96
Natalia Angelini: Hello and welcome to Hull on Estates. You’re listening to Episode #96 on Tuesday, February 5th, 2008.
Welcome to Hull on Estates, a series of podcasts for the Canadian legal community dealing with issues and insights surrounding estate planning in Canada. Hosted by the lawyers of Hull & Hull, the podcast will touch on some key considerations when planning estates and Wills. Now, here are today’s hosts.
Natalia Angelini: Hi and welcome to another episode on Hull on Estates. I’m Natalia Angelini.
Allan Socken: Hi and I’m Allan Socken.
Natalia Angelini: If you want to be heard on Hull on Estates, you can participate in our discussion by leaving a comment. Give us a call at 206-350-6636. The number is in the show notes along with our e-mail address: email@example.com or you can visit our blog at estatelaw.hullandhull.com.
So Allan, it’s great to be podcasting with you today. It’s our first time together.
Allan Socken: I’m very excited about it, Natalia.
Natalia Angelini: That’s good. We’re going to be talking about the family conference. So perhaps I’ll just set out what it is. The family conference is a professionally mediated conference and it essentially provides a forum whereby a testator can reveal his or her proposed estate plan to intended adult beneficiaries. And the objective is to obtain their approval of the plan. So it’s quite a unique animal, the family conference. It’s really the only formal mechanism in place in estate matters where someone can, you know, look their loved ones in the eyes and explain their plan to them, answer any questions about why they wish to have their plans set out in that manner. And ultimately in an ideal scenario, get agreement on it. So Allan, why don’t you tell our listeners what needs to happen in preparation for a conference.
Allan Socken: Well before the conference, I think probably the most important question to ask is who do you invite to the conference? And the simple answer is you invite all adults who are involved in the estate plan. At least, at a minimum, the people you invite would be the spouse of the person who made this estate plan as well as his children. And I think in inviting these people, it’s really important that you speak to them and have a candid conversation with them, obviously before the conference, explain the purpose of a conference, namely for all the people to appreciate what the person’s estate plan looks like and the reasons as to why they’re leaving certain gifts the way that they are.
Natalia Angelini: And who else can be invited?
Allan Socken: Really, any person who has an interest or involvement in the estate plan of the person.
Natalia Angelini: Right. And that would even include professionals, like the testator’s estate lawyer, their financial planner or accountant, because they certainly can have a critical role in explaining or answering questions dealing with the assets.
Allan Socken: For sure. And I think the other important thing to make mention of is there may be certain circumstances, probably quite frequently, where minor children have an interest in the estate plan. And it’s important to note that minor children should not be included in the family conference. In most jurisdictions, Ontario included, there’s an office known as the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, whose mandate is to protect the interests of minor children. And depending on what the estate plan looks like, it may be necessary to have discussions with them to see if it’s necessary for them to attend the conference as well.
Natalia Angelini: That’s a good point, Allan. So are there any other preparatory steps?
Allan Socken: The only other thing I’d like to make mention of is the question as to where to hold the family conference. Often people think that it may be prudent to hold it at a family member’s house. But the reason why, I think, it’s not a good idea is, is often when you go to a person’s house, it may turn into a social function and it may lose the business touch that’s essential in planning for this conference. So I think probably the best place to hold a conference would be at the mediator’s office so people can really appreciate the business-like environment that they’re encountering and the importance placed on the family conference.
Natalia Angelini: In addition, it really is like a mediation and you want to be able to have individual caucuses as well as group caucuses. So you need several rooms and breakout rooms and privacy so you can really have it proceed in a meaningful way. So again, I think a mediator’s office or some other kind of office is ideal.
Allan Socken: I think moving along, Natalia, now we should address the agenda that’s put in place before the family conference. I think it’s important to stress to our listeners that an agenda is essential to have so that people are aware of what’s going to be taking place at the conference and so that divergence can be avoided as much as possible. So probably what’s important to include in the agenda is really the overview of the person’s estate plan which would include the proposed new Will, who the executor will be, funeral arrangements, debts of the person, taxation issues, guardianship of minor children, who may be the Power of Attorney and dealing with the distribution of specific assets for the estate.
Natalia Angelini: Right. I think it is critical to have an agenda and the family conference is chaired. And it’s usually chaired by either the testator or the mediator or someone else selected by the testator. So it’s great assistance to them to have an agenda to follow.
Now in respect of how the actual conference works over the course of a day or more than one day, it is much like a mediation. And, you know, there is, I think, initially, commonly a group meeting where the chairperson goes through the rules of the day. There’s usually a family conference agreement signed which sets out that the mediator is neutral, that he or she is not offering legal advice, that all discussions are without prejudice, and of course, that the mediator is not liable for anything done or omitted at the family conference. So the usual sort of waivers. In addition, a document entitled Rules for Meeting is also signed. And Allan, why don’t you set out what is contained in that document?
Allan Socken: Typically for the Rules of the Meeting, it sets out that the parties understand who’s paying for the mediator’s time but not withstanding whoever is paying for the mediator’s time, the mediator still will be neutral throughout the process. As well, the parties agree that they’ll conduct themselves in a business and professional approach. And in that sense, there’ll be no harsh language spoken either at the other parties or the mediator. And believe me, I’m sure Natalia also can attest to the fact she’s seen certain times where discussions can get pretty heated.
Natalia Angelini: This is true. This is true. And I think in this kind of conference you really want to encourage views to be shared and grievances to be aired, but at the same time, in order for resolutions to come about, you want to make sure that everything is discussed in a cordial manner.
Allan Socken: And just the other thing to make mention of also is one of the rules should also include that all the parties are bound and acknowledge that they’re bound by the Family Conference Agreement. So they can leave whenever they feel like it if they feel progress is not being made. Certainly the mediator will try to keep them there and have the parties agree to at least spend a day there to try to sort things out. But even if the parties want to leave at the end of the day and no agreement can be reached, the parties still agree that all information and all people who were present can’t be subpoenaed in that respect. I think that’s important also to include in the agreement, Natalia.
Natalia Angelini: Good point, Allan. So again, it is a fluid process like any other type of mediation and it really can unfold in a different way depending on the parties and the circumstances. And if an agreement is not ultimately reached at the end of the day, you can, you know, reconvene on another day if all or some of the people are willing to and you can get an agreement at a later time. What that looks like doesn’t necessarily have to be in accordance with the proposed estate plan. It’s not necessarily an imposition of that plan. The plan can be varied or amended pursuant to the comments and views of the beneficiaries and once an agreement is ultimately reached, it’s papered in a document that’s called The Family Constitution. And Allan, maybe you can expand a bit on that.
Allan Socken: Sure. Basically, you probably remember from law school, Natalia, that we always talk about the constitution as being a living tree.
Natalia Angelini: That’s right. Way back when I do remember.
Allan Socken: Well not surprisingly, The Family Constitution is also a living document that requires amendments from time to time. Because as people move on and age in years, no doubt their estate plan changes and when their estate plan changes, it’s really important that The Family Constitution is also updated. And I think as a preamble to The Family Constitution, it’s important to note that while family members may have different views and opinions, they unanimously – hopefully that’s the goal at the end of the day – that they unanimously decide to create this Family Constitution. And I mean, in certain circumstances, there may be family members who don’t want to agree to The Family Constitution or some people may not even want to have the meeting in the first place. So I think the role of the mediator shouldn’t necessarily be to prevent the family conference from going ahead, but perhaps to engage the people who are willing and interested at first to participate in the conference and hopefully, if success can be achieved there, people who didn’t want to participate in the first place may be inclined to give it another look and perhaps be willing to review the constitution that was agreed to. And even in certain circumstances, they may be willing to sign the agreement, albeit they may expect some changes to be made. But at the end of the day, some progress can happen even if not everyone in the family conference is willing at first to participate. And I think that’s important to keep in mind.
Natalia Angelini: Right, and one benefit to proceeding even if you don’t have everyone’s consensus is that the process can be of real value because it shows a testator’s clear intention as to how he or she wishes to divide his or her assets, which can really deflate any kind of brewing Will challenge at the end of the day. So litigation avoidance is one real positive potential outcome of the conference. And if you actually do get a Family Constitution signed, then it’s a great thing to have because it includes an agreement not to contest the Will. So that’s a great way to avoid litigation or ultimately if litigation is commenced, to use that document in defence of that.
Allan Socken: And just one final point for me to make Natalia, if that’s okay, is probably the most complicated aspect of this family conference is really the need for full disclosure. And for a lot of people, that’s really a difficult thing to do because there may be situations that people are embarrassed to admit or really don’t want to disclose. For example, extra-marital affairs, not dividing your estate equally among your children. But at the end of the day, if you want success to be reached with the family conference and you don’t want your Will to be contested or other legal remedies pursued when you die, I really think it’s important that you make mention of these difficult aspects so people can appreciate and they don’t feel as though you’re hiding anything. So while it’s difficult to disclose this information, I really think it’s important to get across that at the end, if you hide it, it will really do more harm than good at the end of the day.
Natalia Angelini: That’s right. I mean the fact is this is a delicate process and it’s not one that I think most people are willing to enter into because I think a lot of us would rather not deal with these delicate and difficult issues during our lifetime and we’ll just wait for everyone else to kind of deal with it after we’ve passed on. So I think people need to have, I think in a lot of cases, it helps to sort of have the courage to go ahead with the process and be open and ultimately, in an ideal scenario, get agreement on the issues or at least, you know, canvass them in an open and honest way.
So well, I think that brings us to the end of this week’s discussion. Thanks for listening and thanks for joining me today, Allan.
Allan Socken: Thanks Natalia, I had a great time.
Natalia Angelini: That’s great. And we look forward to hearing from our listeners. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or just pick up the phone and leave us a message on our comment line at 206-350-6636. And again, you can also visit our blogs at estatelaw.hullandhull.com, where you’ll even find more information and discussion on today’s practice of estate law. We hope you enjoyed the show. I’m Natalia.
Allan Socken: And I’m Allan.
Natalia Angelini: And until next time, so long.
This has been Hull on Estates with the lawyers of Hull & Hull. The podcast you have been listening to has been provided as an information service. It is a summary of current legal issues in estates and estate planning. It is not legal advice and you are reminded to always talk with a legal professional regarding your specific circumstances.
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