The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

The New York Post

Sharing The Family Jewels

By Anne Becker

It was all-out sibling war and the spoils were contained in a knapsack: family photos, birthday cards, overnight camp letters - ripped, torn, marred with curse words. The warriors were a sister and two brothers. The cause - absolute stalemate over their recently passed mother's will.

With seniors living longer than ever and their baby boomer children eager to inherit their savings, tension over wills and estates has increased these days and family infighting is on the rise, experts say.

Wills and estates attorney Les Kotzer has seen so many sibling wars like this one, he wrote a book about them - "Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It" - to help families prevent them.

He tells stories of brothers throwing books over estates, sisters throwing fits over antique vases and families throwing in the towel before trying to work things out with each other.

"These kids didn't hate each other growing up," he said. "I've seen too many families destroyed. I don't practice saving taxes; I practice saving families."

The increased infighting is a partially a matter of demographics. Economists have predicted the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history would take place from the mid 1990s until 2020, with $12 trillion being transferred to the country's 76 million boomers from their penny-pinching parents.

"That was a saving generation," said Kozter. "They saved every penny - cut coupons, lived in the same house, didn't go and buy fancy this and that. Their children, on the other hand, were the spenders and lost money in the stock market. What you see on the street with the fancy cars, you think these people have lots of money, but in reality this generation doesn't."

That generation makes up a whole 32 percent of the population, and not all of them will necessarily inherit a lot.

According to a 1994 benchmark study by economists Robert Avery and Michael Rendell of Cornell University, only a few stand to inherit the bulk of the wealth - one-third of the money will go to a privileged 1 percent of the baby boomers, who will receive about $1.6 million apiece.

The bulk of the boomers will be lucky to inherit $40,000 each, said Avery and Rendell. And with the Center for Disease Control reporting an all-time high average life expectancy of 77.2 years, tensions are running high for boomers having to wait a long time for a little money.

"I can remember when clients were getting inheritances in their fifties, and now they are having to wait until their sixties and seventies," said Dennis Belcher, chairman of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law section of the American Bar Association. "People are getting impatient, resulting in legal fights."

Exacerbating tensions, an estimated 70 percent of the adult population does not even have a written will, according to the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

So families can be left uncertain as to how assets should be distributed, leading to fights over minutia.

"I've had cases where the client had millions of dollars in assets and there was a fight that went to litigation over who gets custody of the photo albums," said Sanford Schlesinger, a wills and estates attorney with the New York branch of Kaye Scholer. "We don't know sometimes what other people think is important. And very often the expectations of the children are very different from the parental idea of what should be done."

Even if parents do draft wills, fighting can ensue if they do not leave equal amounts to each child, said Schlesinger.

For example, Schlesinger helped pick up the pieces when a woman left 40 percent of her estate to one daughter and 60 percent to another, thinking the latter daughter needed more money.

She didn't know, however, that the daughter given 40 percent was much more financially needy. "That daughter spent the rest of her life saying 'Mommy didn't love me,' " Schlesinger said. "And that was not the truth. Mommy just thought there was a different need in a different place. And Mommy was wrong."

Problems can also ensue, however, if parents do leave equal amounts of money to children when the children aren't necessarily equally deserving - for instance when only one sibling acted as a caretaker of the parent in his or her old age or was more involved in the family business than other siblings.

To ward off infighting, experts suggest older adults plan early. This could mean giving gifts while they are still alive or beginning lifetime trusts for their children.

To avoid possible pettiness over their possessions, it is important for adults to have a well-drafted estate plan with no ambiguities.

Experts even recommend individuals file a statement in their own handwriting or record a voice message to explain their intentions.

Most importantly, said Kotzer, all involved should strive for open communication during the entire will execution.

Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications Inc.