More than two centuries ago, Ben Franklin allegedly said, “if you want to know what people are like, share an inheritance with them.” Not much has changed in the intervening years. Inheritance remains one of the most revealing tests of a person’s character. And, sadly, too few earn a passing grade.
But, fortunately, you can take steps today that will reduce the risk of your family failing its test when you pass away. To help with that, below are five common reasons why heirs fight and how to prevent those situations from happening.
First, heirs are more likely to fight if they are unpleasantly surprised. For example, let’s say that dad promised the youngest son that he would get the family car. But when dad passes away, it turns out that his will says nothing about the car or, worse, gave it to someone else. What happens if the other siblings want to comply with the will, meaning that the youngest son doesn’t get the car? Anger. Frustration. And a potential fissure between loved ones. After all, the youngest son believes that dad wanted him to have the car—he said so.
The easiest way to prevent this situation is with communication. Tell people your intentions and then keep your will or trust up to date. You may also want to give written copies of your wishes to your heirs. That way everyone knows what to expect and has had the chance to talk with you in advance.
Second, heirs who either don’t know or don’t like each other are more likely to quarrel. Maybe a sibling moved away and became distant. Perhaps you remarried and your spouse is not close to your kids. Or something else. Whatever the reason, weak or distrustful relationships among heirs can be a breeding ground for disputes.
So, what can we do to untangle these thorny situations? A couple things. At a personal level, we can try to nurture better relationships. But at the end of the day, people get to choose who they like and who they don’t. Meanwhile, at a legal level, we can make it less attractive for those relationship problems to bloom into full-blown legal challenges by including a no-contest clause in our will or trust. This clause disinherits someone if they dispute your will or trust without a compelling reason (such as fraud). So, an heir needs to think hard before escalating a dispute into a slow, expensive legal battle.
Third, some heirs are greedy. And if they also happen to be the person acting as administrator or executor of your estate, they can act on that greed in various ways. Sometimes that means racking up unnecessary hours working on the probate and then billing the estate for that work. Other times it means bullying people with threats of chiseling or taking a person’s inheritance if they don’t do as the administrator demands.
How do we minimize this kind of greed? In three ways. For starters, appoint an honest administrator. Then write in your will or trust that the person administering your estate won’t get paid for doing so. And, finally, communicate your wishes with all of the heirs in advance. Doing all three greatly diminishes the opportunity for a greedy heir to engage in shenanigans.
Fourth, sometimes a will or trust is not so clear, leading to legitimate disagreements over what was meant. In some cases, that’s because the lawyer did a poor job writing the document. But often it is because the document gets larded up with too many contingencies. For instance, let’s say that you own a house and want your spouse to live there until they die or remarry. And then the property goes to the oldest sibling. But if the property is ever sold, the proceeds get distributed equally to all of the siblings (if your spouse had already died or remarried) or equally to all the siblings minus a $1,000 monthly payment (plus a cost-of-living adjustment) to the spouse while they remain alive and unmarried. Hopefully all of that was clear. But clear or not, the volume of scenarios opens the door to more disagreements than it closes. For example, what happens if your spouse doesn’t formally remarry but has a long-term partner? Or what about the cost-of-living adjustment—how often should the monthly payment be adjusted?
To minimize fights over interpreting the will or trust, it’s often wise to err on the side of simplicity. So, if your will or trust feels a bit convoluted, there’s a decent chance that it has been poorly drafted or is in need of simplification.
A fifth reason heirs fight is because some of them don’t follow the rules. Too often, for instance, someone dies and the next day some of the relatives start raiding the house. As a result, by the time the legal process has begun, a few relatives have already walked off with all of the valuable personal property. This kind of theft is a great way to forever destroy a family. And it’s far too common.
This problem, like so many others, can be reduced through proactive communication. Tell people how you want your property to be divided. Write it down. Email it to people. And then delegate who you want to be responsible for overseeing the process. The better you communicate these things in advance, the less likely your house will turn into an Indiana Jones-like treasure hunt shortly after you pass away.
If you would like to give your heirs the gift of peace, rather than seeding their futures with conflict, take the time to set up an estate plan and then share that plan with your family. If you need help with that, contact a qualified estate-planning attorney.
This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be taken as legal advice. For your specific case, consult a lawyer.