Hands Off Grandma's China! - The Family Fight

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The Family Fight In The Media

Hands Off Grandma's China!

The holidays are a good time to fend off a family feud in the future.

By Jeanne Sahadi
CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Whether you've got millions of dollars or just a set of china and some mementos to bequeath to your kids, you might use the holidays as a time to hone your thinking about the who, what and how of your will.

Now, there's no need to conduct a seminar about your eventual date with eternity just as everyone's about to dig in to dinner – 'cause, let's face it, that's a big downer.

But you could take a quiet measure of your relationships with your kids and their relationships to each other.

Even if you think your children would never squabble over cash, don't assume they won't argue about your estate.

"Children don't just fight over money," said estate planning lawyer Les Kotzer, coauthor of "The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It." They may fight over objects of sentimental value. Or they may feel resentful if they suspect their siblings were privy to more information about your plans than they were.

So if you want to help keep the family peace for years to come, here are some of Kotzer's suggestions:

"Equal shares" sounds fair, but it isn't always. Parents, Kotzer said, "assume equality is fairness." But it's not if, for example, you've given a lot more money to one child than another during your lifetime. Maybe you helped one son with a down payment but not another. Or you helped your daughter pay for her kids' educations, while your other offspring don't have children.

Consider, too, whether one of your kids is your caregiver or has provided you with substantial financial help. That person might be deserving of a bigger piece of your estate. (For ways to compensate a caregiving child while you're around, click here.)

Avoid inadvertent inequality. Often, Kotzer said, "Parents base their planning on today's situation." They may assume a child who is better off than his siblings will always be so and doesn't necessarily need as large a cut. But Kotzler knows of one situation where a once-flush son was bankrupt at the time of his parent's death.

Or say you plan to leave $5,000 to one child and a $5,000 baseball card collection to another. But by the time your beneficiaries inherit your estate, those baseball cards might be worth well over $5,000.

Carefully consider whom you name executor. "Parents will often trivialize who they're appointing as executor," Kotzer said. A typical default is the eldest son.

If some or all of your kids are capable, you might ask who among them would be willing. Not everyone is, so you might as well find the person who's happiest to do the job.

If your kids don't get along, consider an outside party to distribute your estate. That's because the executor can make decisions that will affect the rest of your family.

For example, you may empower the executor to sell an asset such as a family cottage to raise money. That can create serious friction if all family members don't agree with the decision. Better they be angry at someone else than each other.

Be clear what you're bequesting. If you leave your "antiques" to someone, does that include some hunk-a-junk from the 1960s? Kotzer knows of one family who went nuts over such nonsense.

Also, he said, don't bequeath an object to several people if it can't be split, like a dining set.

If you're leaving a large, expensive item to a child who lives far away, specify who will pay for freight.

Sentimental value knows no bounds. You're a huge part of your children's lives and their memories. So make sure they each get mementos they want and which represent your relationship to them.

For starters, specify that each child gets back what they gave you, Kotzler said. That way, the crystal vase your daughter bought you goes to her and not her blowhard brother-in-law, whom she never liked.

And if you're going to leave your jewelry, leave it to the relatives who really want it and not to those for whom it has no meaning.

You might also ask your kids what they'd prefer. If two kids want the same thing, "you'll have to play Solomon," Kotzer said, but at least you had the discussion.

Protect your kids. You may love your second spouse. But you'll have to insure that your kids from your first marriage get what you intend for them to have. Whether from ignorance, selfishness or a premature demise, your second spouse may not set up his or her will to adequately provide for your children.

Have a little chat. A common complaint Kotzer hears from adult kids is, 'Why didn't my mother tell me this?' "What I'm finding is there's no communication between children and parents," he said.

You certainly don't need your children's permission when making inheritance decisions. It's your estate, after all. But you can prevent a lot of potential family feuds if everyone is made aware of your intentions and has some sense of your reasoning.

"The key to creating harmony is the discussion," Kotzer said. "And holidays are a great time to begin the discussion."




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