Personal Connections: Estate planning that doesn’t wreck your family

Do you know any families that have had huge conflicts after a parent died? Where adult siblings fight over the will, stop speaking to each other, or even sue? I bet you do, because it’s fairly common.

Fortunately, most of that drama is avoidable — provided parents take steps while they’re still alive. I’m speaking as a therapist; be sure to talk to an attorney and accountant about your specific situation. Just don’t overlook the emotional component.

Let’s look at some sample situations where parents’ decisions about their wills can cause sibling problems later.

Scenario 1:

You have a collection of jewelry and two adult daughters. Sarah loves jewelry; Kate doesn’t wear much jewelry. So you leave all your jewelry to Sarah.

The problem: There’s a good chance Kate might want one or two pieces, either because she’s always loved them or because she wants something to remember you by. If you also have a son, it’s possible his (current or eventual) wife or daughter might want an item that was yours.

The solution: Tell your kids what you’re thinking and ask Kate if there’s anything she’d particularly like. Ask your son if there’s anything he’d like for his branch of the family.

Scenario 2:

You name your son, Mark, executor of your estate, because he’s male and firstborn.

The problem: Age and gender are not the best predictors of being a good executor. Some sons and some firstborns are awful with money. Worse, you might hurt the feelings of another child.

Suppose your youngest child, Susan, is a real detail person, fair, maybe even an accountant. If you put Mark in charge of the estate despite his history of financial problems, Susan may feel hurt that you don’t see her as the competent person she is. Worse: Mark might mess things up, even “borrow” money from the estate, leading to conflict and possibly a lawsuit.

The solution: Ask the child who’s best at details and managing money to be executor — and tell the other siblings why you’re making that choice. It (probably) isn’t that you think they couldn’t handle the job, it’s just that you think Susan is best suited.

Scenario 3:

You have a few antiques and some paintings, including one painting that’s worth something. Your son Todd has often said how much he loves that painting, so you leave it to him.

The problem: It’s possible that your other kids also love that painting but didn’t say anything. (Maybe they didn’t want to be pushy.) Maybe Todd wants the painting so he can sell it and pocket the money; maybe another child wants to hang it prominently. Maybe the painting is worth so much that whoever inherits it will get far more than their share of your estate.

The solution: When you’re preparing your will, think about both economic and sentimental value. Does it matter if one child wants Grandma’s antique dresser in order to sell it and another child wants to keep it in the family?

Ask your kids what they might like to inherit when the time comes. Which heirlooms, furniture, etc., do they particularly like?

If each child likes different things, easy. If they all like certain things, have a family meeting about how to divide them fairly.

You might draw straws to decide who gets a particular object. You might decide that one person gets a single precious piece and the others get multiple, less valuable things. You might decide that one expensive thing should be sold and the proceeds divided equally.

Once you’ve got this sorted out, make a list of who’s getting what and consult your attorney about putting it in your will. You might also discreetly label items with the name of the person who’ll get them.

Scenario 4:

Your daughter Jane lives with you and has been a big help caring for you as you’ve gotten older. The other kids call and visit, but Jane has done a lot of work, so you leave most of your estate to her.

The problem: The other kids may think it’s unfair, because Jane had her living expenses covered while she lived with you. Or they may accuse her of manipulating you to favor her over them.

The solution: Talk to your attorney about paying Jane for her services now, then leaving your estate to all your kids equally when the time comes. Or, explain your reasoning to your kids. It’s better if they’re mad at you briefly than being mad at Jane for the rest of their lives.

Scenario 5:

You have three children. Joe is very successful and doesn’t need more money, so you leave everything to Mary and Frank.

The problem: Joe may not need your money, but he does need to know that you love him. If you cut him out of your will entirely, he may sort of understand why but still feel deeply rejected.

Another possibility: The situation may change. Between now and when you pass away, Joe might lose his job or his business might go under. Then he’s left feeling rejected and not having an inheritance that would be helpful.

The solution: If you’re considering dividing your estate in any way that’s not even among your children, talk to your attorney and friends who’ve been through it about possible complications. Explain to your kids why you’ve decided on your plan; assure them of your love.

Your money is yours; you can leave it to whomever you want. But if you’re like most parents, you have two goals: to distribute your assets fairly and to maintain family harmony. Surprises tend to create problems, especially when they’re layered on top of grief. The best way to prevent emotions from getting out of hand is to ask for your kids’ input, explain your decisions, and listen to their feelings about them.

Hard as it may be to have some of these conversations, talking now while you’re alive and well is the best way to ensure that your kids will remain a family after you’re gone.

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