The death of a parent is a trying time even in the best of circumstances. The loss of a parent can, on occasion, bring out the worst in siblings. We’ve all heard the horror stories of families torn apart by arguments over inheritances. Siblings fighting with each other over parents’ belongings, children fighting with a stepparent over the family home or bank accounts… it’s ugly. At the very time you need the parent to step in and help resolve the tension, their absence is all the more painful.
The things that make your family unique—not money, but stories and personal possessions—those are most important in the legacy discussion. But there are usually two problems: Families often fail to record their histories, so stories tend to die with aging relatives, and family mementos are among the most common causes of conflict after a relative dies.
Very rarely is it about just the money. It’s usually about the tangible personal property. Money can be divided pretty evenly, but the teacup that Grandma always used? Maybe there’s no monetary value associated with that teacup, but because of the sentimental value and the emotions around it, that causes controversy.
Family fights among children after death occurs in a large percentage of families. If the number one goal is to create family harmony, then the estate plan ought to be designed in a way that preserves it. To avoid estate problems, and encourage family harmony, consider the following steps.
- Start talking
As you develop your estate plan, find out who among your family members might like specific keepsakes. If you have aging parents, consider broaching the topic: What items would they like to give to whom? This may seem awkward at first but parents who create a mechanism for disposing of keepsakes go a long way to prevent conflict later. Often the parents themselves are destroying their own families without even knowing it, by not planning now.
To avoid situations where children can’t agree, parents should talk with their children individually and as a group. Sort it all out beforehand and then you make it public to the family. List what you’re going to do and the reasons for it.
- Hire a trusted Estate Planner
To avoid conflict, you have to have a well-written trust and a will and have an independent third party that you trust to oversee it. Ambiguity leads to conflict. If the trust is well-thought-out and well-written, conflict can be avoided. An estate planner will also help you with things you’ve never thought so you can see the big picture. You may think you only need a will, when in fact, you need a trust or power of attorney as well. Estate advisers can offer solutions to you as well as provide you with “what-if” scenarios, so that you and your family are fully prepared to lessen the event of family drama.
To ensure your financial wishes are carried out, your estate plan should include at least a will, a trust, a financial power of attorney, a health-care power of attorney, and a living will that clarifies your wishes with regard to end-of-life care.
- Create a memorandum
Given that family heirlooms can spark fiery conflicts, create a memorandum that details how you want to divvy up your personal property. Make sure your executor knows where to find the memorandum, and be specific about items. In one example, a woman said her diamond ring should go to a daughter, but she didn’t clarify which diamond ring. Attaching photos of the item and referencing each photo in your memorandum may help as well.
- Avoid fomenting discord
Got a favorite niece or grandson? Consider demonstrating that affection before you die—and make your post-death division of property more equitable. Give items away before you die. You can explain, for example, that the family china is going to your brother’s daughter because her side of the family doesn’t have anything else from your mother; that your son is getting less because you paid for his graduate school education; and that you would like your niece to choose a memento but don’t plan to formalize it in your will. These simple explanations will go a long way toward avoiding hurt feelings.
Keep in mind that your family members don’t have to agree with you—after all, these are your decisions to make, and they don’t get to vote. But if everyone knows that you made your decisions thoughtfully, not in anger or by mistake, then the arguments will probably go away.
If your legacy is that you’d like your family to remain a harmonious unit, then plan to treat them equally, so you don’t cause that discord that can occur if one of the children thinks they’ve been slighted by a parent.
- Choose your executor carefully
Choosing your estate’s executor is tricky business. You’re giving power to one family member—that can lead to arguments. Some parents think that their oldest child should be the executor, even if he or she doesn’t seem very well suited to the task. But you’ll do better to discard preconceptions about who should be the executor, and instead pick someone who is honest, organized, hardworking, and a good communicator. Inheritors are less likely to become anxious or suspicious if the executor keeps them up to date on what’s happening.
Sometimes, to keep things fair, people will name co-executors, but that gets complicated, too. For example, they may all need to appear in court or show up to sign documents. Remarriages are another source of complications: a step siblings actions may not be viewed as fair by family from a previous or later marriage.
In such cases, hiring a corporate fiduciary as executor through your bank or trust company may make sense. You can name a professional executor in your will, or your chosen executors may opt to hire a professional after your death.
- Share your values
Sharing family values can be among the most treasured of bequests. Take time to tell—and record—family stories. Write on the backs of photos who it is and how they are related. Use an ethical will, which might be a one-page document or a bound book and isn’t legally binding, lets you pass along your life story and values. While an ethical will can take many forms, often it’s a letter tucked in with the will.
Another idea: A journal that prompts you to write down information such as the location of important financial documents and your wishes for your family. See the “When I’m Gone” journals at JournalsUnlimited.com.
- Keep your Estate planning documents up to date
Make sure to update your will, trust, and beneficiary designations every few years or whenever you have a major life change, such as marriage, a new child, divorce, or the death of a major beneficiary. This is good advice, because if you don’t change your documents now and then, they probably won’t reflect your current wishes, which can lead to hurt feelings if you promised something to one child but forgot to update your estate.
One way or another, inheritance touches almost everyone, and most of us either know or fear conflict after a death in the family. Parents must use caution not to base their planning on inappropriate (albeit natural) assumptions, which often lead to family fights. Never assume goodwill among your children Never assume that because you love your kids, they’ll love each other. If you have one child with debt and another without debt, don’t assume one will look after the other.