Invest in 'good uncles' who your children can trust after you leave

It would be remiss of me not to appreciate the overwhelming response I received for last week’s column on the books one must read before they depart. Kenyans clearly read!

While most people had different proposals on what needed to have been on the list, one book that many readers suggested, and which I hereby add as a bonus is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Life in the Time of Cholera”.

I had no idea the romantic community in Kenya is that large; there is hope yet for this great Nation! From literature, we move to a less exciting, but no less important arena.

In the more than three decades that I have practised law, I have had the privilege of helping people plan their estates, represented numerous parties when estate disputes arose, and mediated many family disputes both as a professional mediator but sometimes simply a trusted family friend.

From these experiences, there are some few lessons I have learnt that I feel compelled to share with my fellow middle-classers, that may reduce the pain of the family after your departure.

Firstly, to state the obvious. Plan for your death. Many of us live as if we are eternal on mother earth. We used to be told only death and taxes are realities. That maxim remains true.

The more complicated your affairs are, the more critical it is that you pen a will. It may not resolve all your issues and it may even be contested, but at least there will be no doubt as to what your intentions were.

Important in this process is to ensure all those that regularly depended on you as a matter of obligation are named therein, including the outliers who appear in the funeral meetings demanding to be in the funeral notice!

That said, the will is only the hardware of post death management. There are software actions that can reduce the intensity of intra family disagreements once you leave.

Over time I have learnt that the character of estate disputes is largely determined during one’s life. The roots of most disputes are evident long before the patriarch departs.

Subtle indications of possible challenges include partiality and discriminatory treatment of siblings at any part of their lives and failure to manage sibling relationships when you are alive.

I have been amazed by the contribution made by old family slights, or feelings of being on the outside looking in, to family estate wars.

While it is not possible to treat children in absolutely the same manner, excessive favouritism is obvious to siblings, poisons relationships and contaminates the estate management process. 

It is also clear to me that parents have a huge role to manage sibling rivalries when they are alive, these rivalries grow exponentially once a parent leaves the scene. To the extent that if it is possible, mediate those rivalries when alive.

Secondly, as children grow older, disclosure of your affairs is key. Many of us keep our affairs so secret that our children learn with the world the extent of our interests and obligations after we go.

Let adult children know the extent of what you own and what you owe. If you are a businessperson, let them be a party, even as co-directors or co-owners so that they interact with your business when you are available.

Finally, invest in good friends who your children know and trust, who have no stake in your affairs and so can be trusted disinterested mediators when you are not there.

In the village setting, trusted uncles played key roles in managing estate affairs. Those may not be available in our setting but can be “created”. Create them now, they will help smoothen the family cracks in ways that lawyers cannot. Over to you.