The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

The Seattle Post

A Clash of Wills: Greed and misunderstanding can foul up the hereafter

By Cecelia Goodnow
Seattle Post Reporter

"My brother is a liar, a cheat and a thief. My parents trusted him, and he took advantage of them. This is a kid I used to walk to school with. Who would have thought?"
-- From "The Family Fight"

Someday you will no longer be with us. And how you prepare for that far, far away day can shape whether your loved ones, wracked by sobs, will still be speaking to one another after you're gone.

In the aftermath of death, most families try to behave honorably, but lawyers who deal in wills and other end-of-life issues have a litany of horror stories fueled by innocent mistakes and plain old greed.

"I've actually had people say, 'Mommy liked you best and now it's my turn,' " said Mary Anne Vance, a Seattle attorney who has witnessed 25 years of family fights over wills. "We've had people cry, people get very angry with each other, lawyers get very angry with each other."

It's difficult to document, but some lawyers sense that bickering is on the rise as spendthrift baby boomers come to depend on legacies from "the saving generation" to bail them out of debt.

"Perhaps what we're seeing is some of the estates are larger, so they can be more contentious," said Seattle attorney Doug Lawrence. "I do think there's more litigation. Kids tend to feel they're entitled to something. They're not entitled. The parents don't have to leave them anything."

Lawyers add that elderly parents can be traumatized by their children's pre-inheritance squabbles, just as young children are harmed by parental bickering.

Inheritance feuds are universal. Canadian attorney Les Kotzer of Ontario was so distressed by inheritance-fueled family breakups, he co-wrote a self-published estate-planning guide called "The Family Fight: Planning To Avoid It." The mail-order guide has sold a hearty 15,000 copies, mostly in the United States, earning a mention in the trade journal Publisher's Weekly.

Kotzer, who posts cautionary tales from aggrieved children on his Web site,, said many disputes fester under a veneer of civility.

"It's very sad to say, but you should never assume good will between kids," Kotzer said. "Even if there is, their spouses may not let them have good will. A lot of people become very bitter."

Inheritance feuds are hard to mend but relatively easy to prevent. Lawyers say preparation is everything.

"No. 1 is to come up with a good estate plan that is not challengeable," said Seattle attorney Karl Flaccus. "That's where people should put their focus."

"I tried to get my father to make a will. ... I even offered to get one of the do-it-yourself kits from the post office. However, he believed my sister would 'do the right thing.' Sadly, my father passed away six months later and I found out about it 10 days after he died. No notice was put in the paper and no other relatives or friends were informed."


Wills aren't just for old age. Accidents and illness can happen anytime. For young parents, wills offer the chance to name a guardian -- usually a friend or relative -- to raise surviving children. Absent a will, the courts will choose.

But most people put off making a will and, in many cases, die without one.

"To lessen conflict, they have to get their affairs in order," said Seattle attorney Jon A. Clark.

Good intentions aren't enough. Flaccus recently had to give some bad news to expectant "heirs" who showed up carrying a videotaped "will" made by a woman who had since died. "I had to say, 'That has no legal validity,' " Flaccus said. "It has to be written and signed and witnessed."

The $200,000 estate automatically went to the deceased woman's daughter, who could have kept it all but, in a classy act, honored her mother's wishes to distribute it among various relatives and a close friend.

In a case that took three years and $6,000 to sort out, Seattle attorney Margaret Dore represented a woman who had helped support her mother for many years, with an understanding she would inherit the mother's house.

The mother, however, died without a will, creating an opening for another daughter to claim a share of the estate. Complicating matters, yet another daughter (there were five) had died years earlier, leaving surviving children who had to be located so they could be given notice of the probate.

In the end, Dore's client got the house. If the mother had left a will, the attorney said, the whole matter could have been settled in three or four months for less than $1,000.

"I offered to help my mother's (second) husband divide up her things. His response was that he just couldn't deal with it right now and would take care of it. In the meantime, he held an estate auction and sold most of her things."


"If you're in a second marriage, you've got to be extremely careful about planning," Kotzer said. "Never assume the second spouse will take care of the children of the first marriage."

That cuts both ways. Vance has had two cases in which widows who helped raise their stepchildren were threatened with loss of their homes because their names weren't on the deeds. In one case the client was elderly and had a child with Down syndrome.

"It's a wicked world out there," Vance said, adding that both widows came out OK, one through a settlement, another through the appeals process.

Even without the complication of a second marriage, competition for family heirlooms and mementos can strain good will -- sometimes more than battles over money.

As Kotzer said, "It's not easy to look in your sister-in-law's china cabinet and see something you bought your mother."

In this state, people who make wills can attach a list -- to be completed at their leisure -- indicating who gets what.

Sometimes families just draw lots for keepsakes and then horse-trade. But even this has pitfalls. In one case, a woman kept losing to her sister when they drew straws for treasured keepsakes from their deceased mother. Finally she realized her sister had rigged the straws and knew which one was the winner before making her selection.

Then there's the less-than-honorable "entrepreneurial" approach, which Vance summarizes as, "Everyone's at the funeral -- one of the relatives goes to the home and cleans it out. I've had that reported more than once."

"So the moral of our story is, try your best to find out what is in the will before they die. Open those lines of communication. ... And above all, DO NOT depend on the affection and love of family members .... Money changes people."


Kotzer urges families to discuss plans and expectations openly. Should Susie get something extra for her years of selfless care-giving? Should Joey be cut out of the will because of his thankless, irresponsible behavior? Does Fred really want responsibility for his parents' financial and medical decisions?

"Too much of the problem is because there's no communication," Kotzer said. "You can either talk now or not talk later."

Other attorneys say openness is a fine ideal but can be harmful when elderly parents are trying to fend off predatory children. Lawrence suggests that parents explain their decisions, either in person or, afterward by letter or videotape. That can smooth over hurt feelings and prevent unfounded claims of undue influence.

But Flaccus says well-intentioned explanations can backfire if you're not careful. Say you leave a videotape explaining that you gave less to one son because he was much better off financially -- only it turns out he wasn't as successful as Mom thought.

Hmm. Better run it by your lawyer before hitting the "record" button. Or you could follow Dore's advice and just end your will with a statement of love and appreciation for one and all.

With any luck, family ties will prevail. Just this spring one of Kotzer's clients died, leaving an envelope to be opened on her death. As her grown children, who had become distant from each other, filed in for the reading, Kotzer said, "they were sort of cold and bitter. You could see the tension there."

"Your mother," he told them by way of prelude, "was a wonderful person. She did not want you to fight."

With that, he opened the letter. Out fell snapshots of the kids from when they were young -- playing together, fooling around on a camping trip, buddies for life.

As the estranged children cried and hugged, Kotzer read aloud their mother's final wish.

"I do not want you children to be torn apart," Mom wrote. "Remember -- I am watching you."


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