Can all children see their parents' living trust?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My parents are being very secretive with the other two of their three children while doing this living will thing! They are 89 and 85, and there is lots of fighting going on among the three kids about how to take care of them if something happens to one of them. So now they want to change from having just a will to having a living trust and only having one child knowing what is in it. Our brother is getting some extra papers that we don't get to see, and we don't feel secure about what is going on.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

First, just a brief note on some confusing legal terms. A living will is a document that allows people to specify the kind of medical care should be given or withheld if they became unable to express those wishes. A living trust is similar to a will, as it specifies who should get property after death--and it sounds as if that is the topic of your concern.

The legal reality is that people who make living trusts do not need to tell anyone at all about what they provide during their lifetimes--even the trustee who will actually be responsible for rounding up the property and giving it out to those named to take it. And the personal reality is that people often choose to set up living trusts for this very reason: that the contents are not public knowledge.

The usual hope is that this will help ward off family fights and grudge matches over who might be entitled to get what--but as you point out, that idea can sometimes backfire, as it seems to have in your family.

Your best bet may be to call a family meeting with bother your parents and all the children so that you all can express your concerns and air your differences. You may learn that your parents have a really good reason for proceeding the way they are--and do not mean to treat the children unfairly or unevenly.

If this seems too difficult to arrange on your own, consider getting the help of a mediator, who might be able to help supervise the conversation and ward off fighting and hurt feelings. Check first in the telephone book for local mediation services; some community groups offer them free or for very little cost.