Avoiding Family Feuds Over Inheritance

When it comes to inheritance, family feuds are real. Regardless of the amount of inheritance at stake, it is a far too common occurrence for family disputes to arise over an inheritance after a parent dies. Otherwise rational people can quickly act like children fighting in the school yard over a perceived slight or unfair distribution of a parent’s estate.

Let’s be honest. Talking about death and money is difficult for some and awkward for most of us. Most estate plan clients I encounter struggle with how and whether to talk to their children about their estate plan. There are several ways to prevent or to minimize a family feud and it all comes down to being as prepared, open and transparent
as possible.

First and foremost, you need to have an estate plan that reflects your wishes. At a minimum this includes a will, a trust if appropriate, a durable power of attorney, health care proxy, and living will. The will must name a personal representative and successor to administer your estate, as well as a guardian and conservator, and successors, for minor children. Once an estate plan is in place it is imperative to update these documents as family circumstances change such as births, deaths and divorce, changes in family dynamics and income.

Second, it is important to recognize that not all assets are controlled by a will or trust. For example, assets held jointly with rights of survivorship are not disposed of by your will, nor are assets that have named beneficiaries such as life insurance policies, individual retirement accounts, 401(k) plans and annuities. Keeping track of these assets and the beneficiaries named as they relate to your overall inheritance plan will minimize potential conflicts and disparities in the distribution of assets to your heirs.

Third, schedule a family meeting long before you are at death’s door to talk openly about how you plan to dispose of your assets. But a word of advice: be fair. While it isn’t always possible to treat each child equally, it is prudent to treat each child fairly as each has different needs and financial abilities. If your children know what to expect and understand the underlying reasons behind your decisions, they are less likely to dispute the inheritance after you’re gone. It is the shock and disappointment that leads to inheritance litigation, tearing families apart. If there is already tension among family members, consider asking your estate attorney to facilitate the meeting, diffuse the tension and be available to answer questions. I have found these meetings to be both productive and therapeutic for the families involved.

When families feud, nobody wins and everyone suffers. To avoid family friction over inheritance, be proactive and take action while you can.

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