The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

The Regina Leader-Post

Inheri'tense' Fights Avoidable

Irene Seiberling
The Leader-Post

Warning: It could happen to you!

Family inheritance fights can easily happen to anyone. And things can get nasty, warns a Toronto-based wills lawyer, who specializes in helping families avoid inheritance battles.

"It's something that we all think can't happen to our family. We think it can only happen to the wealthiest of people. But that's not true," says Les Kotzer, who has seen plenty of families ripped apart over inheritances.

"The family that we know and love can be destroyed by something that our parents do or don't do," he cautioned, adding that one or two words in a will can tear apart a close family.

Often problems boil down to a lack of communication between parents and offspring, Kotzer pointed out. Making sure everyone understands who is getting what and why is crucial, he emphasized. To help avoid battles over possessions, he recommends that parents ask their children if there are any special items they might want.

"While that (parent) 'referee' is still alive, there are things that can be done to avoid the family fight," Kotzer said, adding that "planning to avoid it is the important part."

To help people do just that, Kotzer and his partner, Barry Fish, have published The Family Fight: Planning to avoid it, an easy-to-understand, how-to book on wills and estate planning. The 140-page paperback provides plenty of real life family fight stories, plus strategies and suggestions to avoid inheritance disputes and help keep families united. It explains complex legal terms in plain language. And it offers suggestions to help you organize your family affairs so you don't leave a mess for your family.

"The book -- like my practice -- is about saving families, not saving taxes," Kotzer said.

He cites a litany of errors made by parents, which can end up turning siblings against one another and cause deep rifts among family members.

For example, there's the assumption by parents that equality is always fair.

"That's not necessarily true," Kotzer said. "Sometimes the most equal wills cause the most problems," he pointed out.

For example, a child who serves as a parent's caregiver could become resentful if a sibling with next-to-no involvement receives an equal share of the inheritance when the parent is no longer around.

"You have to know your own family. Try to look deeper, through a microscope, to see what could cause problems," Kotzer advised. "Never assume good will between your kids. Don't assume your kids will work things out," he added.

Squabbling over inheritance isn't always about money, Kotzer is quick to point out. "The fighting is also about memories -- personal items, like the painting on the wall or table in the hallway -- things that can't be divided."

Even if one sibling relents and allows another to have the sought-after item, their relationship may be irreparably damaged.

"These are the kinds of things that can create bitterness -- something that burns in your heart." Kotzer said.

"Another reason for fighting is the issue of being slighted by parents," he pointed out.

Often, parents appoint their oldest child executor of their estate. But by making one child solely responsible for looking after the estate, it can create friction among the executor and his/her siblings. And in the case of a dictatorial executor, the siblings may become angry and resentful if decisions are made that they don't agree with.

Parents should also avoid inadvertent inequality, Kotzer cautioned.

For example, at the time a will is made, the estimated value of a hockey card collection being left to one child might be $2,000. And in an effort to equalize things, the parent may leave the other child $2,000 in his/her will. But, if the value of the collection increases to $15,000 by the time the will is read, but the will isn't updated to reflect this increase in value, the other child will not receive equal value. Instead, he/she will receive the $2,000 specified in the will.

It's also important to understand what it really means to own something in joint ownership, Kotzer stressed. In a nutshell, it means the surviving owner gets it all. You can't leave your joint bank account to someone in your will. Nor can you leave property to them.

"Joint ownership overrides what a will says," Kotzer explained.

The Family Fight features a handy record keeping checklist, designed to help your loved ones in the event of your incapacity or death. It includes listing everything from the location(s) of all the financial institutions you're dealing with, to computer and access codes, and a record of personal items you've loaned to other people, such as power tools or an expensive lawn mower.

"It's important to keep a record, so your kids have that kind of information," Kotzer said. "It will help make a smooth transition from loss of a parent to handling inheritance."

Kotzer, who is also a professional songwriter, has also released a CD of songs and music dedicated to helping families communicate before it's too late.

"Little things can destroy a family," Kotzer cautioned. "I'm afraid we are destroying our support group -- our families. This is a tragedy.

"My mother always told me that her greatest gems were not in her bank account; they were her family ... I'm trying to focus on saving the family unit," he said.


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