A family feud over an inheritance is not a game and there is no prize package at the end of the show. Rather, disputes over who gets your property after your death can drag on for years and deplete your entire estate. When most people are preparing their estate plans, they execute wills and living trusts that focus on minimizing taxes or avoiding probate. However, this process should also involve laying the groundwork for your estate to be settled amicably and according to your wishes. Communication with your loved ones is key to accomplishing this goal.
Feuds can erupt when parents fail to plan, or make assumptions that prove to be untrue. Such disputes may evolve out of a long-standing sibling rivalry; however, even the most agreeable family members can turn into green-eyed monsters when it comes time to divide up the family china or decide who gets the vacation home at the lake.
Avoid assumptions. Even the most loving of families can have problems and issues after a parent’s death. Do not presume that any of your children will look out for the interests of your other children. To ensure your property is distributed to the beneficiaries you select, and to protect the integrity of the family unit, you must establish a clear estate plan and communicate that plan – and the rationale behind certain decisions – to your loved ones.
In formulating your estate plan, you should have a conversation with your children or other loved ones to discuss who will be the executor or trustee of your estate, or who wants to inherit a specific personal item. Ask them who wants to be the executor or trustee, or consider the abilities of each child in selecting who will settle your estate, rather than just defaulting to the eldest child. This discussion should also include provisions for your potential incapacity, and address who has the power of attorney and as such, who will make medical, financial and legal decisions for you if you cannot.
Do not assume any of your children want to inherit specific items. Many heirs fight as much over sentimental value as they do monetary items. Cash and investments are easily divided, but how do you split up Mom’s engagement ring or the table Dad built in his woodshop? By establishing a will or trust that clearly states who is to receive such special items, you avoid the risk that your estate will be depleted through costly legal proceedings as your children fight over who is entitled to such items.
Take the following steps to ensure your wishes are carried out:
Discuss your estate planning with your family. Ask for their input and explain anything “unusual,” such as special gifts of property or if the beneficiaries are not inheriting an equal amount.
Name guardians, as back-up parents, for your minor children, if both mom and dad should die while they are still minors.
Write a letter, outside of your will or trust, that shares your thoughts, values, stories, love, dreams and hopes for your loved ones.
Select a special, tangible gift for each heir that is meaningful to the recipient.
Explain to your children why you have appointed a particular person to serve as your trustee, executor, agent or guardian of your children.
If you are in a second marriage, make sure your children from a prior marriage and your current spouse know that you have established an estate plan that protects their interests.
Seek the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney to help you establish your estate plan and make sure that you leave your intended legacy.