We've all read about huge family fortunes squandered in legal battles between siblings after the patriarch or matriarch dies. While most of us wouldn't make national headlines regarding our estate planning matters, the pain and destruction of inheritance feuds can be minimized if not totally avoided.
Interestingly, most of these fights aren't about money. "What causes inheritance feuds are a few other things - lack of communication mostly by the parents - and [other emotional] stuff," says Theresa Malmstrom, vice president and senior wealth planner at PNC Wealth Management.
That other emotional stuff includes longstanding sibling rivalry. Indeed, "if parents can somehow eliminate jealousy among and between siblings, disputes could disappear," says Michael Dribin, an estate planning attorney at Harper Meyer Perez Hagen O'Connor Albert & Dribin LLP. "These disputes are often the result of deep-seated issues that go back many years and only reach their climax when mom and dad are no longer around."
While establishing a sense of family harmony that is stronger than a need for financial gain, many families fall short of it. Still, there are steps to take that can at least facilitate a more harmonious transfer of assets between family members. Note the foundation of this entire process is ongoing communication - both verbal and written.
Create a plan
Sit down with a trusted professional adviser who can help you plan your estate. Identify and document all your assets and then get down in the weeds and talk about all the family dynamics. Are there issues and circumstances that would lead you to leave more of your assets to one child? Does one child out-earn another or have special needs? Ask yourself the hard questions. Aside from a seasoned estate planning attorney and financial adviser, you may want to consider a family psychologist if necessary.
Engage in family discussions
A lot of inheritance feuds can be avoided if parents communicate their desires with the beneficiaries while the parents are still alive. Tell them what you are doing and then "explain to them what you are trying to accomplish in your will and estate planning, says Allison Shipley, a principal at PWC. Unfortunately, the "why" of asset distribution is often not communicated and that is where problems often arise.
Notarize a Letter of Instruction
In addition to the will, consider writing a Letter of Instruction to the family that outlines, in your own words and without the legalese, how you want your estate divided. Think of it as an operating manual. "You have all-in-one book who will run the company, the trusts, what goes to charity, to the grandchildren, what happens at the first death, second death, etc.," says Rebecca Pavese, the manager of Palisades Hudson Financial Group's national tax practice. This letter will be read along with the will after your death.
Record your decision
If you have significant concerns that your kids will challenge you for being mentally incompetent, you can protect yourself by making a video. "You can have it videoed with a doctor present showing no one is forcing you," says Pavese. The video can prove that you were competent when you signed the will, she says.
Before starting any kind of litigation, ask yourself, no matter how angry you are, whether the potential (but not certain) benefits to be gained outweigh the harm. "Realize that litigation of this nature is not only financially destructive, but emotionally draining and, no matter how it might get resolved, will result in the destruction of important family relationships, not only among the siblings who have fought, but among their children," says Dribin. "Once this litigation starts, there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle," he says.