Prevent a Family Fight When a Loved One Dies - The Family Fight

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The Family Fight In The Media

Deseret Morning News

Prevent a Family Fight When a Loved One Dies

By Greg Kratz
Deseret Morning News

Back in February, I told you about an estate-planning attorney who is on something of a mission.

The goal of this attorney, Les Kotzer, is to help families avoid the squabbles and fights that often occur among siblings and other relatives when a mother or father dies.

A recent death in my wife's family reminded me of his mission. And since I think what he has to say is important, I have decided to reprint some of his advice.

Les is an attorney in Toronto and the author of "The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It." In addition to writing that book, he has penned a couple of songs on the topic and recorded them on a CD called "A Family United, A Family Divided." (For information on ordering, go to or call 877-439-3999.)

His goal with both the book and the songs, he says, is to "inspire people to plan now before it is too late."

When I talked to Les earlier this year, he told the story of a woman standing in the parking lot outside his office, holding a crystal vase. It was a gift she had given to her mother, and now that her mother had died, she wanted to keep it.

However, the vase was not specifically given to her in her mother's will, and her brothers wanted to sell it and split the proceeds. When Les told her she would have to follow the will, the woman smashed the vase to the ground "so nobody would have it."

And that's just one of the horror stories Les includes in his book.

Les says he comes from a close family, and that is why he wants to help other families stay together. He likes to remind people of something his mother used to say. "Her greatest gems were not in her safety deposit box, but they were in her family photo album," Les says.
He says his book is not about saving money when planning an estate, but saving families.
"People ask, 'Where is the starting point for planning?' The average lawyer will say, 'Bring in your net worth statement.' I say, 'Bring in your family photo album.' . . . To me, the family photo album is really the starting point."

Les says families with little material wealth often think they do not need estate planning, but he has found that money is not the only issue that can lead to fights.

Children may fight over who should care for a parent who becomes incapacitated. That's why all parents should establish a durable power of attorney, Les says — one for property and one for health care.

"If you don't have that, your family could be at war in court," he says.

Les says families also fight over memories.

"Many times parents will work out the money issue, but they won't work out the memories issue," he says.

Children may end up spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight over an item that cost a few bucks when it was purchased but now has great emotional significance.

Children also sometimes fight because they feel slighted. For instance, Les says, a parent may decide that splitting everything equally among her children is fair. But if one of those children was her primary caregiver in later years, it may be more fair for that child to receive a larger inheritance.

"Never assume equality is always fair," Les says. "Just because your will says everything goes equally to your kids, don't think that's going to stop the fighting among your kids. . . . Never assume goodwill between your children."

When parents leave it to their children to work things out, he says, it often means lawyers will work things out.

"Once you get a call from your brother's lawyer, your relationship will never be the same again," Les says.

What it all comes down to, he says, is communication. Parents need to communicate with their children. Children need to communicate with their parents and with each other.
With good communication and planning, the death of a parent can strengthen family bonds instead of ripping them apart.



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