Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Can You Prevent Family Fights over Inheritance?

Inheritance battles can create new conflicts, inflame long-standing resentments and squander assets intended to make heir’s lives better. What can families do to prevent estate battles when a loved one’s intentions aren’t accepted is the question asked by the recent article, “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them,” from mondaq.com.

Here are the more common scenarios leading to family estate battles:

  • Siblings who are always fighting over something
  • Second or third marriages
  • Disparate treatment of children, whether real or perceived
  • Mental illness or additional issues
  • Isolation or estrangement
  • Economic hardship

There are steps to take to minimize, if not eliminate the likelihood of estate battles. The most important is to have an estate plan in place, including all the necessary documents to clearly indicate your wishes. You may want to include a letter of intent, which is not a legally enforceable document. However, it can support the wishes expressed in estate planning documents.

Update the Estate Plan. Does your estate plan still achieve the desired outcome? This is especially important if the family has experienced big changes to finances or relationships. An estate plan from ten years ago may not reflect current circumstances.

Make Distributions Now. For some families, giving with “warm hands” is a gratifying experience and can remove wealth from the estate to avoid battles as everything’s already been given away. The pleasure of seeing families enjoy the fruits of your labor is not to be underestimated, like a granddaughter who is able to buy a home of her own or an entrepreneurial loved one getting help in a business venture.

Appoint a Non-Family Member as a Trustee. Warring factions within a family are not likely to resolve things on their own, especially when cash is at stake. Appointing a family member as a trustee could cause them to become a lightning rod for all of the family’s tensions. Without the confidence of beneficiaries, accusations of self-dealing or an innocent mistake could lead to litigation. Removing the emotions by having a non-family member serve as a professional trustee can lessen suspicion and decrease the chances of legal disputes.

Communicate, with a facilitator, if necessary. Families with a history of disputes often do better when a professional is involved. Depending on the severity of the dynamics, this could range from annual meetings with an estate planning attorney to explain how the estate plan works and have discussions about the parent’s wishes to monthly meetings with a family counselor.

A No-Contest Clause. For some families, a no-contest clause in the will can head off any issues from the start. If people are especially litigious, however, this may not be enough to stop them from pursuing a case. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend the use of this provision, based on knowing the family and how much wealth is involved.

Addressing the problem now. The biggest mistake is to sweep the issue under the proverbial rug and “let them fight over it when I’m gone.” A better legacy is to address the problem of the family squabbles and know you’ve done the right thing.

As we head into the holiday season, efforts to bring families together and prepare for the future will allow parents, children and grandchildren to enjoy their time together.

Reference: mondaq.com (Nov. 4, 2022) “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them”

Problems Created When No Will Is Available

Ask any estate planning attorney how much material they have for a book, or a movie based on the drama they see from family squabbles when someone dies without a will. There’s plenty—but a legal requirement of confidentiality and professionalism keeps those stories from circulating as widely as they might. This may be why more people aren’t as aware as they should be of how badly things go for loved ones when there’s no will, or the will is improperly drafted.

Disputes range from one parent favoring one child or children engaged in fierce fighting over personal possessions when there’s no will specifying who should get what, or providing a system for distribution, according to a recent article titled “Estate planning: 68% of Americans lack a will” from New Orleans City Business.

People don’t consider estate planning as an urgent matter. The pace of life has become so hectic as to push estate planning appointments to the next week, and the next. They also don’t believe their estates have enough value to need to have a will, but without a will, a modest estate could evaporate far faster than if an estate plan were in place.

The number of people having a will has actually decreased in the last twenty years. A few sources report the number keeps dipping from 50% in 2005, 44% in 2016 and 32% in 2022. In 2020, more Americans searched the term “online will” than in any other time since 2011.

Younger people seem to be making changes. Before the pandemic, only 16% of Americans ages 18-34 had a will. Today caring.com reports 24% of these young adults have a will. Maybe they know something their elders don’t!

One thing to be considered when having a will drafted is the “no contest clause.” Anyone who challenges the will is immediately cut out of the will. While this may not deter the person who is bound and determined to fight, it presents a reason to think twice before engaging in litigation.

Many people don’t know they can include trust provisions in their wills to manage family inheritances. Trusts are not just for super wealthy families but are good planning tools used to protect assets. They are used to control distributions, including setting terms and conditions for when heirs receive bequests.

Today’s will must also address digital assets. The transfer and administration of digital assets includes emails, electronic access to bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit cards, cryptocurrency, reward program accounts, streaming services and more. Even if the executor has access to log-in information, they may be precluded from accessing digital accounts because of federal or state laws. Wills are evolving to address these concerns and plan for the practicalities of digital assets.

Reference: New Orleans City Business (Sep. 8, 2022) “Estate planning: 68% of Americans lack a will”

Talk to Parents about Estate Planning without Making It Awkward

If you don’t have this conversation with parents when they are able to share information and provide you with instructions, helping with their care if they become incapacitated or dealing with their estate after they pass will be far more difficult. None of this is easy, but there are some practical strategies shared in the article “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from The Balance.

Parents worry about children fighting over estates after they pass, but not having a “family meeting” to speak about estate planning increases the chance of this happening. In many cases, family conflicts lead to litigation, and everyone loses.

Start by including siblings. Including everyone creates an awareness of fairness because no one is being left out. A frank, open conversation including all of the heirs with parents can prevent or at least lessen the chances for arguments over what parents would have wanted. Distrust grows with secrets, so get everything out in the open.

When is the right time to have the conversation? There is no time like the present. Don’t wait for an emergency to occur—what most people do—but by then, it’s too late.

Estate planning includes preparing for issues of aging as well as property distribution after death. Health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney need to be prepared, so family members can be involved when a parent is incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will draft these documents as part of creating an estate plan.

The unpredictable events of 2020 and 2021 have made life’s fragile nature clear. Now is the time to sit down with family members and talk about the plans for the future. Do your parents have an estate plan? Are there plans for incapacity, including Long-Term Care insurance? If they needed to be moved to a long-term facility, how would the cost be covered?

Another reason to have this conversation with family now is your own retirement planning. The cost of caring for an ailing parent can derail even the best retirement plan in a matter of months.

Define roles among siblings. Who will serve as power of attorney and manage mom’s finances? Who will be the executor after death? Where are all of the necessary documents? If the last will and testament is locked in a safe deposit box and no one can gain access to it, how will the family manage to follow their parent’s wishes?

Find any old wills and see If trusts were established when children were young. If an estate plan was created years ago and the children are now adults, it’s likely all of the documents need to be revised. Review any trusts with an estate planning attorney. Those children who were protected by trusts so many years ago may now be ready to serve as executor, trustees, power of attorney or health care surrogate.

Usually, a complete understanding of the parent’s wishes and reasons behind their estate plan takes more than a single conversation. Some of the issues may require detailed discussion, or family members may need time to process the information. However, as long as the parents are living, the conversation should continue. Scheduling an annual family meeting, often with the family’s estate planning attorney present, can help everyone set long-term goals and foster healthy family relationships for multiple generations.

Reference: The Balance (Oct. 15, 2021) “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”

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