The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

The Seattle Times

Book Can Help Prevent Ugly Family Feuds After You Die

Liz Taylor
Seattle Times

So you plan to spend a few days this month in the bosom of your family, celebrating the season, honoring the reason and enjoying one another's company, hmmm?

If your stomach knots up at the prospect, be aware that next to Christmas, the other most common sources of family tension in this country occur when a parent requires care and when the parent dies. The need to pull together in the face of great sadness, long-standing family resentments, favorite-child syndrome and whatever else pits siblings against each other, makes these times difficult.

That's why planning ahead is imperative. None of us knows whether we'll need care someday (though many will), but we certainly know we will die. Failing to deal with either or both of these issues until you're staring them in the face — or turning 90, whichever comes first — invites family fights, sometimes outright war. I've seen siblings spend years and entire inheritances in long, drawn-out, acrimonious battles.

There is one book that is just the thing to bring sanity to this picture. It made me a believer in preparation and prevention as the cure.

Called "The Family Fight" and appropriately subtitled "Planning to Avoid It," the book is by two wills-and-estates attorneys, Barry Fish and Les Kotzer.

While we're alive, each adult must have three documents: a durable power of attorney for property, a durable power of attorney for health care and a living will. These ensure that our bills get paid and we receive the care we need and want if we become incapacitated.

But just as important is our will after we die, distributing our assets. The problem is, a whole lot of us do it wrong. Some of us who should know better (ahem, me until a week ago) don't have one. Or we distribute our things based on inappropriate assumptions (such as: our kids will be nice to each other after we die and share fairly, they'll get along with our second wife, or our kids' marriages will be permanent). Or we leave no clues where to find our important papers, turning our loved ones into detectives. Such is the fodder of feuding families.

But two big lessons in the book leapt out at me.

• To save your loved ones years of potential bitterness, bend over backward to be fair when dividing your assets. Make sure your will does what you intend.

• Your will is irrevocable after you die. There are no second chances.

A story from the authors' law practice exemplifies both lessons.

A father remarried after his first wife died. His son understood that, when his dad dies, the son will inherit a third of the estate and the rest will go to the woman's two children. But when the father died, he left everything to the stepmother, and when the stepmother died, she left everything to her children — including the father's sizable bank and stock proceeds, family heirlooms, photographs and real estate that had been passed down through the son's family for generations. His stepsiblings refused to give him a single item, and there was nothing he could do.

Did the father assume that his second wife would look after his son in her will? No one will ever know. Not having ensured that his will reflected his intentions, however, he set his son up to lose his family's wealth and mementos.

Two other scenarios that I've seen many times hold the potential for family fights unless they're dealt with fairly.

• A son cares for his dad, assuming responsibility for shopping, taking him to the doctor, hiring caregivers, doing taxes, paying bills, helping with bathing, laundry, even personal hygiene. His efforts cost him a promotion. His siblings live far away and can't help.

• A parent bails out his daughter financially when her business founders in a bad economy, helping her to save her company. Her two siblings have stable jobs and receive nothing.

"Fairness is dictated by the circumstances in your family, and you cannot simply stamp an equal sign on your affairs and walk away," the authors say, offering a range of solutions.


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