The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

Reuters Business

Finance: Where There Is A Will, There Are Ways

By Linda Stern

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Baby boomers and their parents have often had trouble seeing eye to eye, and that long-standing tradition continues even as the two generations are having their last important conversations.

The greatest generation is aging and dying, and will leave roughly $7.5 trillion to their boomer children, but neither is talking about it. If they did, they would probably find they had very different ideas about the whole practice of one generation handing down money, heirlooms and life's lessons to another.

That alone may not be all that surprising, but here's what is: Both generations probably would really like what the other had to say about it all, according to a recent survey commissioned by Allianz Life Insurance Company and done by research firms Age Wave and Harris Interactive.

Many elders believe they "owe" their children an inheritance, but very few of the adult children actually think they are owed anything, according to the survey.

And many elders focus on their financial assets, taking great care to apportion the money they leave their children in the belief that that is the most important part of the transaction. But the children, it seems, care most about the vases and tables and photos that store their family memories. And, though this part isn't in the survey, they are very willing to go to war over them.

That is in line with what Les Kotzer, a Toronto attorney who specializes in writing wills, sees every day.

"I've seen brothers fighting over a Howdy Doody lunchbox. I've seen siblings stop talking," he said. "I had one client who smashed a crystal figurine because if she couldn't have it, she didn't want anyone else in the family to get it. I've seen so much baby boomer fighting over things, it's sad."

Kotzer and his law partner Barry Fish wrote and published a book called "The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It." Kotzer also wrote and recorded a CD of songs about families divvying up inheritances, designed to spark those discussions that nobody wants to have. Both can be found on his Web site,

He's full of advice for families on how to talk about and plan the distribution of their estates to avoid future sibling estrangement.

Here's some advice from Kotzer, and from the findings of the Allianz survey.

-- Use the word "legacy" instead of the word "inheritance." It sounds nicer, to both parents and children, and carries more meaning, according to the survey.

-- Devise a way to divide belongings, because you can't split a painting or a favorite chair, and those are the things that can permanently split families. One technique that works is to have heirs gather and choose items in a round robin fashion. Another, that Kotzer likes, is to have a family rule that children take back whatever gifts they've individually given their parents. Children who particularly treasure one item should let their parents know how they feel about that item.

-- Remember that even the designation of an executor can cause a lot of pain, if it makes other siblings feel slighted. Parents should tell their children ahead of time if they've designated one to be responsible for their estate, and explain their reasoning in a way that's not hurtful.

-- Don't always try to be evenhanded. In many families, one adult child lives in the family home and cares for the elderly parent. When the parent dies, the home may have to be sold so the proceeds can be divided evenly. That can render the caregiver child, who sacrificed the most for their parents, homeless.

-- If you do try to be evenhanded, don't mess it up accidentally. Kotzer has seen families where the parent will stipulate that a family holding be left to one child and an equivalent amount of money be left to another child. But in the time between the writing of the will and when the parent dies, the two values can diverge.

-- With today's technology, it is easy to split photos. Scan 'em, make each child a CD, and there's no more fighting.

-- Have the talk. It's okay for an adult child to have a one-on-one talk with a parent. But the parents (or the children, if necessary) should also insist on at least one family meeting in which the elders explain their wishes and their reasons for making the decisions they've made.

-- Remember that when you are dividing up an estate, you're talking about memories, feelings and values. It would be so much easier if it really were only about money.

"The Family Fight" is not available in bookstores; to order a copy from the publisher, call 1-877-439-3999.

Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications Inc.