How to Keep Your Estate Plan From Causing a Family Feud

More people than you might imagine come to our Palmer & Slay, PLLC with the desire to prevent family disputes as one of their top priorities. On the other hand, some people who, contrary to our advice, failed to plan their estates properly, (because they “knew” such shenanigans could never occur in their families), have turned out  to be sadly mistaken. In our experience with clients throughout Mississippi, we have found that safe is always better than sorry, especially when regret will arrive long after remedy is possible. 

Common Areas that Families Argue About 

1. Most family conflicts start because one or more heirs feel that they haven’t been treated fairly in terms of their inheritance. 

Most parents are careful to make sure their assets will be distributed equitably among their offspring when they are assisted in creating their will. Nonetheless, the children may not agree with their parent’s decision unless it has been explained to them prior to the death. It is, of course, possible that even after the explanation of the parent’s motive, one child may feel slighted, but at least he or she will know that the decision was not a frivolous one.

For this reason, our legal team recommends that parents arrange to have a comprehensive discussion with all of their children to explain semblances of inequity that may actually result from the fact that:

  • One child lived in the parent’s home for an extended period during her/his adulthood while the parent footed all of her/his bills.
  • One child was given or loaned a substantial amount of money at a time of crisis that was never repaid.
  • One child has a special need or deficiency (whether documented or not), such as lacking sufficient education to earn a reasonable income, having a serious problem with drugs, alcohol, or gambling, or being emotionally unstable.
  • One child has a much higher income than the others, has married into a very wealthy family, or has a spouse whose earnings put this couple in a much higher tax bracket than the rest of the family.
  • One child has a much larger family to support, either by having birthed, adopted, or fostered many children, or having married someone who already had children from a previous relationship.
  • One child has spent years caring for the parent, perhaps living in the family home, and now that parent doesn’t want to send that child packing after she/he passes away.

2. Other Family Disputes Arise About Heirlooms, Collections, or Other Sentimental Personal Belongings

Often squabbling begins because heirs or other relatives always assumed that they would be left with the tapestried rocker, the china tea set, the coin collection, or the album of old photographs. Typically, these arguments are not rooted in financial matters; they are rooted in personal connection to the objects themselves. Once again, decisions about who should get what are best made and clarified by the person planning his or her estate. There are many ways of making this action seem to be more equitable, such as:

  • Discussing the decision with family well ahead of death, so that everyone understands the reasoning behind it. If Aunt Alma had been promised the oval mirror by her older sister when they were girls, certainly she should have it, perhaps with the understanding that she will leave it to her niece (her sister’s daughter who has always loved it) when she passes.
  • Auctioning off the items in question, privately or publicly, and allowing the various heirs to bid on them.
  • Allowing the heirs to spend an afternoon going through the special items of the household before the will is drawn up so that various children or other close family members get to put stickers on the items they most deeply crave. In that way, when there are conflicts, compromises can be made way ahead of the expected turmoil engendered by a death in the family.

As you can see, the decision made by parents about which assets they leave to which of their children is typically thought out and reasonable, even if some heirs find it to be unfair. This is why it’s so critical that families have conversations, even uncomfortable ones before estate planning is undertaken so that a parental death, though it will doubtless cause pain, will not result in a family schism.