E-Mail Estate Misinformation – Problems and Answers

Lately it has come to my attention that the most current methods of communication today not only can lead to confusion and misunderstanding but also unnecessary dissension and inefficiency.  Twitter comes to mind but emails can be among the worst.

It might seem this is not a problem for businesses or for attorneys but that would be wrong.  In the field of estate administration, as just one example, misplaced or misworded emails can cause a world of hurt and conflict that can delay resolution of an estate or even add threats of litigation.  Additionally, the speed with which we act often means we are not thinking through the results of statements made or considering the kind of information shared.

As just one exemple, emails left unexplained do not come with voice inflection.  Does it matter?  It can.  Just try an experiment.  Here is a phrase “Can we discuss this later?”  This might mean “I really do not want to discuss this at all” or “I’m busy.  I would like to discuss this when we have more time” or “I really want to discuss this.  Please make some time later so we can do that.”  Which is it?  You would not know in an email.  Welcome to the world of email communication.

Email “strings” of conversations can sometimes help to explain and clarify but can also add to the disturbance.  Often it happens that the receiver quickly sends a response message without receiving everything or understanding the context and adds further to the misunderstanding.

Some people are very “business like” when responding to personal communications and might seem cold and unfeeling.   Others might need to go into long explanations.

Another problem arises when considering who is receiving the messages.  Does everyone need to receive a given email or should it only be shared with one or two?  If you send the message to almost everyone involved and leave someone out is that person going to be offended?  Also was that person necessary to the dialogue?

Where there could be litigation the sharing of certain documents could result in them falling into the wrong hands.  It is all too easy to attach a document without thinking.

What is the answer?  First, going back to the situation where one adult child, namely yourself, is administering an estate as Executrix or Administrator and several siblings are involved, here are some ideas.

   1.  Think before emailing. When a parent dies, emotions are high anyway.  Read over your email more than once and consider how it might be interpreted by another beneficiary/recipient.

   2.  Use your attorney to explain why things are done the way they are done.  Some matters take time when settling an estate.  Notably, one of them is sale of a residence.  Also, before a bank or financial institution will release funds, certain procedures need to be followed.  This is not intended to excuse long delayed estates but, if you have a competent attorney experienced in handling estates she or he should be able to explain the process in such a way as to be understandable to other beneficiaries and can initiate that discussion, if needed.    

   3.  Act in a businesslike manner.  If other beneficiaries want regular status updates you can consider preparing from time to time a status “report.”  It can be typewritten with the heading “Report” and it can be an attachment to an email.  This makes it clear you are acting as Executrix or Administrator and you can address questions together.  It also makes you think of it as a business document.

   4.  Establish a procedure for distribution of personal assets.  This is one area where email can be your friend.  If there are items in the house valuable either for financial or sentimental reasons, you can prepare an Excel or other spreadsheet as an attachment to your email listing them and then asking beneficiaries to indicate their preferences.  Ideally, arrange one date when everyone can arrive at the house for distribution.  It can be handled as a social with coffee and donuts or pizza/sandwiches and soda.  Anything that can be done to ease tensions should be considered. 

  5.  Remember you are acting for the estate, not just yourself or those closest to you, and remember how to use your language – both in emails and personally.

About the Author Janet Colliton

Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.

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