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By Roy Schneider, Esq.

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, ruin family relationships, 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. Unfortunately, you cannot presume that any of your children will look out for the interests of your other children. To ensure your property is distributed to the heirs, persons, or charities 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 most cases, when formulating your estate plan, you should have a conversation with your children to discuss who will be the executor of your estate, or who wants to inherit a specific personal item. Ask them who is willing to be the executor, or consider the abilities of each child in selecting who will settle your estate, rather than just defaulting to the eldest child. If asking your children for their opinion or willingness to be executor or trustee, you should explain to them that it is a difficult job, takes time, and can be emotionally draining. This discussion should also include provisions for your potential incapacity, and address who has the power of attorney and who is the agent for healthcare decisions.

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. You may also want to keep your pets in mind.  Who will take care of them if something happens to you? Who will take them in and treat them as well as you treat them?

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 heirs are not inheriting an equal amount. Keep in mind that this may not be the best approach, and only discuss those topics for which you are unsure (i.e. personal effects, willingness to be executor, etc.). If you want a charity to receive a part of your estate, or one child to receive more than another because they helped you in the past, you may not want to ask your children for their input as they will likely disagree. Remember that this is YOUR estate plan, not theirs.
  • Name guardians for your minor children and caregivers for your pets.
  • Write a letter, outside of your will or trust, that shares your thoughts, values, stories, love, dreams and hopes for your loved ones.

If your children are receiving unequal gifts from you, make and keep notes as to why, i.e. loans made during your lifetime, unequal caregiving services, lack of communication for years, etc.

  • 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.

The estate planning attorneys at Schneiders & Associates, L.L.P. are ready to assist you in planning your estate and in making sure that your exact wishes are lawfully carried out so that your heirs and beneficiaries fully understand what it is you wish to provide for them.  Contact us today for your estate planning questionnaire and to schedule your complimentary consultation. 

About the Author
Theodore J. Schneider practices in the areas of business and corporate transactions, employment law counseling, municipal and public law, real estate and land use, and homeowner associations. Ted began his legal career in 2002 when he joined the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, L.L.P. before relocating to Ventura County to join his father in practice.