Estate Planning Is A Lot More Than Money - The Family Fight

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The Family Fight In The Media

Associated Press

Estate Planning Is A Lot More Than Money

By Eileen Alt Powell
AP Business Writer

Susan Udin doesn't expect problems when the time comes to settle her 92-year-old mother's estate. Her mother, who lives in a nearby assisted living facility, has a will that divides her assets 50-50 between Udin and her sister.

"There's absolutely no mystery to it," said Udin, who is 57 and a professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

Udin doesn't expect any squabbling over her mother's possessions, because the sisters have different tastes. Still, they had to find a solution about what to do with some Italian prints their mother already gave them.

"We trade them back and forth every year," Udin said.

Fact is, estate planning isn't just about money; there can be complex emotional issues involved.

Parents may worry whether they're being fair in the way they divvy up property among children and stepchildren. A child may have a special fondness for a certain family heirloom, but be reluctant to speak up for fear of sounding greedy. Neither side, meanwhile, looks forward to discussing anything that has to do with death and dying.

But experts say parents and children who don't talk about legacy issues miss a great opportunity for sharing their thoughts on family traditions and values and may be setting the stage for feuding after the parents' deaths.

A new study indicates heirs are five times more likely to fight about fulfilling their parents' last wishes and distributing personal property than about dividing up their parents' money.

The Allianz American Legacies Study, sponsored by the Allianz Life Insurance Co., also found that seniors and baby boomers ranked money last in their list of important estate issues. Ahead of it were sharing values and life lessons, understanding final instructions and wishes to be fulfilled, and distributing personal possessions that have emotional value.

Still, just one-third of the more than 2,500 people surveyed said they had discussed such a wide range of issues.

Ken Dychtwald, president and chief executive of Age Wave, a San Francisco-based consulting group that helped design the survey, said families may be approaching estate planning incorrectly.

"We found that when you ask people to talk about inheritance, everyone clams up," Dychtwald said. "Inheritance is about money, and it's seen as greedy. But ask them to talk about legacy ... it's as if we hit some kind of magic button, and people open up about leaving behind family values and traditions -- and money was just a piece of that."

Among those who took part in the study was Janet Rowe, 69, of Oak Park, Ill. Rowe, who still works part-time as a nurse, said she wants to be remembered "as a loving, caring person." But, she said, "I don't talk about it; I've tried to act it."

Rowe also has strong feelings about how her estate will be divided. Under her will, each of her three children will get one-quarter of the estate, and her four grandchildren will share the remaining quarter.

"I was trying to be even," Rowe said. "But I wanted the grandchildren to get something of their own, and not have to depend on their parents to get it."

Estate attorney Les Kotzer, author of "The Family Fight -- Planning to Avoid It," said some parents think they don't need to do any estate planning because they don't see themselves as wealthy.

That attitude, Kotzer said, ignores the fact that their children may have strong feelings about a painting that has hung in the dining room for years or a table inherited from grandparents or even their father's war medals.

Many parents mistakenly assume their kids will work things out among themselves after they die.

"More often, it's the lawyers who have to work it out," Kotzer said. "And once a lawyer gets between your kids -- say the lawyer sends a letter to a sister on behalf of a brother -- their relationship won't be the same anymore."

There are several ways to accomplish fair distribution, he said. Children can be asked to continue sharing the family cottage, for example. Or each can be told to "take back what you bought me." Or they can agree to take turns selecting an item until all are gone. Or they can put names on things they want, while the parents are still alive to referee.

"The point is, estate planning is one area where silence is not golden," he said. "You have to communicate, and you have to organize your affairs before you pass away or you risk leaving a legacy of anger."

"The Family Fight" is not available in bookstores; to order a copy from the publisher, call 1-877-439-3999.



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