The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

The Hartford Courant

Preventing Tug Of War Over Bequest
Attorney's Book Says Key To Amicable Estate Settlement Is Clear Communication Between Parents And Heirs - And Leaving A Will

By Kathleen Megan,
The Hartford Courant

There was the woman in the parking lot, waving a crystal vase in the air and screaming, "I bought this for my mother 10 years ago, and I want it back. My brother wants to sell it." With that, she smashed it on the ground. If she wasn't going to get it, no one would.

In another case, two brothers seemed to be having a civilized discussion about a parent's will, until one picked up a legal book and hurled it at his brother's head.

And there was the angry sister who showed up with a bagful of shredded photo albums, birthday cards and other mementos from her mother's estate. She told the lawyer to deliver them to her brothers - she was too angry over their handling of her mother's will.

Family feuds. Attorney Les Kotzer has seen it all, and he says there has been an explosion in the number and intensity of sibling fights over their inheritance and heirlooms when their parents die.

He boils it down to the vast intergenerational differences between baby boomers and their parents. The parents grew up during the Depression era, watching every penny, buying second-hand cars, debating purchases. Many now have sizable estates, especially with the vast appreciation in the worth of the family home. Their children, who may have chuckled at their parents' thriftiness, have spent wildly on real estate, SUVs, electronics and entertainment. Now they are relying on their inheritance to bail them out of debt.

When you add to that volatile mix a will that contains surprises, or isn't clearly written, or is nonexistent - you have the ingredients for a family battle.

That's why Kotzer, with colleague Barry Fish, has written a guide offering advice on how to avoid such disputes: "The Family Fight: Planning To Avoid It" (Continental Atlantic Publications, $19.95).

"Everyone is talking about saving taxes," said Kotzer. "What they are not talking about is how to save the family. You can save taxes but destroy your family in the process."

In general, Kotzer says, the best ways to avoid the bitter disputes that set sibling against sibling is for parents to make clear their intentions in conversations before their death - and, of course, to have an up-to-date will.

If you'd like a big funeral, let your children know so they won't argue over it. If you're planning to do something that might seem unusual - leaving the house to the child who took care of you, for instance - discuss it ahead of time so that each child understands your intentions.

It may seem obvious to you that your son the social worker deserves the bulk of your estate because your daughter the surgeon has all the money she needs, but arguments are not just over money. On the other hand, don't assume that splitting everything equally assures there won't be fights.

Kotzer urges parents to be as specific and detailed as possible. "Never assume your children will have goodwill toward each other when you die," he says.

Here is a brief compendium of Kotzer's advice, starting, as he does, before death:

Fighting Can Start

Before Death

If Dad or Mom become incapacitated in a car wreck or develop Alzheimer's, Kotzer said, generally all of their assets are frozen until one of the children is given durable power of attorney by the court. "Right away, there is a potential war," said Kotzer. "Which of the three kids will look after him?"

And then there are the thorny medical questions: When will Dad come off life support? Should a respirator be used?

Parents should take the lead before illness or a tragedy and decide which child will have power of attorney, and they should prepare a living will describing the medical care they want. And it's best, Kotzer says, if parents discuss their decisions ahead of time with their children.

Avoiding Fights

Over Heirlooms

Often, personal items have the greatest meaning to children. Parents should be specific in doling out everything.

"You may say, I leave my diamond ring to my daughter, but which diamond ring? The $10,000 or the $1,000?" asks Kotzer.

Or a parent may leave all of the antiques to a particular child. But what is an antique? Is a table made in 1940 an antique or not?

Also, parents trying to divide up their belongings equally among children can inadvertently create great disparities if they don't update a will. For instance, a father may leave a baseball-card collection valued at $5,000 in 1990 to his son, while giving his daughter $5,000 in cash. But a decade later, that card collection might be worth $10,000. If the father hasn't updated the will, now there's an inequity.

Equality Doesn't Mean

No Fighting

Often, parents think they will avoid any fights by simply divvying up their estate equally among children. But it may be that one child truly does warrant a greater share than another. For instance, if one child takes Mom to medical appointments and helps with grocery shopping, while the other child only visits on holidays, the caregiver may well feel slighted if the portions are equal.

Even worse is the case Kotzer tells of a maiden aunt who remained in her parents' house, forgoing college and a life of her own to care for her parents. Her mother told her the house would be hers, but the mother actually left everything equally to the three children.

The result: The daughter was thrown out of the house by siblings who thought it unreasonable to ask them to give up their share in it.

In the case of a caregiver, Kotzer suggests talking to the caregiver ahead of time and discussing what special recognition he or she might want and deserve. If the caregiver is going to, for instance, get the house, talk to the other siblings ahead of time about why this is. This cuts down on any acrimony.

Don't Automatically Cut Out the Black Sheep

Often enough, Kotzer said, he'll get a call from an irritated parent on a Monday morning who wants to cut out of the will a child who has angered him.

"You assume you will be able to do a new will and put him in next week," Kotzer tells the person, but what if you never get the chance?

Even if that child is a ne'er-do-well, Kotzer advises parents to think twice before cutting him or her out, because it could cause problems for your other children.


Who Should Be Executor

Kotzer tells a story of three brothers who came into his office to read their father's will. They seemed friendly and congenial, until Kotzer opened the will, and the eldest, the executor, said, "I'd like you boys to leave the room. I want to talk to the lawyer alone."

Later, the younger brothers called Kotzer and pleaded with him, "Please don't let my brother sell the family cottage. He always hated it. At least give us the right to buy it."

Kotzer said that parents should think hard about whom they make executor, and they may want to consider appointing all or several of their children executors, and let the majority make decisions.

If You Don't Have a Will

Not having a will is, of course, one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make. If you don't take advantage of that chance to speak from the grave, then the state will decide, perhaps in a way that you wouldn't have liked.

What can be a particularly bad situation is when someone is especially dependent on a close friend, but without a will, the estate goes to a third cousin in Sioux City who has never even seen the person



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