How can you plan ahead—as a family, or as a family enterprise (business, foundation, family office)? And how can you make sure family dynamics don’t unglue all the good that exists already? Here’s what I wish I had known back then:

  1. Ask your loved one to communicate his or her intent for the family or the foundation—be it through a letter, a video, a recorded interview, or talks with other board or family members. Some foundations have their donor write a Letter of Donor Intent, which can be incredibly useful for the current and future board. It can also remind family members what binds them together.
  2. If the “writing is on the wall” when it comes to life expectancy, consider a detailed conversation about life-support decisions—ideally with the loved one who is dying. We learned that my dad’s medical Power of Attorney was broad. One of his doctors, with us in attendance, asked my dad his specific wishes, and under what circumstances he wanted us to prolong his life. It was invaluable hearing what Dad wanted versus one of us interpreting what we thought he wanted. It helped us avoid a lot of arguments and misunderstandings.
  3. Understand that everyone plays a “role” in the family. For example, in my family, my role is supportive. One of my older brothers and younger step-sister took on the role of settling my dad’s estate because they lived closest to my dad and those were his wishes. Knowing this in advance helped us manage the process. What’s your role, and how did it evolve? How effective is your role in the grand scheme of family dynamics? How will your role change once your loved one is no longer living?
  4. Listen. Wait. Listen again. You may not like what a family member is saying, and you don’t have to. However, it will help if you listen to them—and even when you think you know what they mean, listen again. Ask them questions to clarify in a gentle, non-confrontational way (“I think I hear you saying XYZ; do I have that right?”). This can help you better understand their motives—what need they are trying to fulfill. It can open avenues for compromise and help you learn to communicate with your family members (regardless of what you think of them!).
  5. Allow time for mourning. Whether the death is sudden or expected, allow yourself and others time to mourn. Know that everyone deals with death and loss in their own personal way, and a family member won’t handle it in the same way you will. There’s no right or wrong. Give everyone some space and time before diving into the financial and organizational details. Allow time for emotions to arise, and forgive yourself and others for not being perfect.
  6. Break long-term changes into small chunks. With so much to do in dealing with death, it can easily feel overwhelming. Break up all the practical long-term duties into immediate next best steps. What are the top two or three things the family or board can focus on today to take care of what needs to be done tomorrow? Who’s in charge of what? How can you all work together and share ownership in a way that feels safe and non-threatening?

Read the full article about preparing for the future by Suzanne Hammer at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.