The Family Fight - Planning To Avoid It

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The Family Fight In The Media

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Write A Will Now And Avoid A Family Feud Later

By Jim Gallagher
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Associated Press provided some information for this column

Do you want to start a family feud?

Here's how. Die with lots of money and leave no will, a confusing will, or a will packed with surprises.

So say estate lawyers, who make very good livings arguing over which heir gets what.

The first step is to see a lawyer and get a will. Do-it-yourself wills are legal in Missouri and Illinois, if properly done and witnessed. But putting pen to paper can cause a major mess after you're gone.

Look what happened to poor Charles Kuralt.

Kuralt, the CBS newsman, became famous for finding folksy stories in the hinterlands. In his
wanderings, he also found a close female friend. He spent lots of time with her over three decades, much of it at his fishing retreat in Montana.

As Kuralt lay on his deathbed in 1997, he put pen to paper. "I'll have a lawyer visit the hospital to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in MT," he wrote his female friend.

Her existence came as a big surprise to Kuralt's wife of 35 years. She learned of her rival after his funeral.

Kuralt's scribbling began a two-year court battle. Courts held that the deathbed note was enough to override Kuralt's existing will. His girlfriend got the $600,000 Montana property, but because of a quirk in the will's wording, his other heirs got the tax bill for it.

Lawyers make a mint off such fights. So, unless you'd like to include a law firm among your heirs, it's best to take care of things far in advance.

Rather than scribbling, it's best to see a lawyer. Wills are cheap. Lawyers advertise simple wills for $75 in St. Louis. Throw in some minor consultation and the price might rise to $200 or $300.

While you're still among us, tell your heirs who is getting what, and why. That will head off
arguments that begin with "Mom promised that table to me, you dolt!"

"It will avoid more fights than you can imagine," says Paul Vogel, a lawyer and president of
Enterprise Trust in Clayton. "From what I've seen, the biggest fights are over personal property, not money."

Missouri law makes dividing personal property easy, says lawyer Thomas Glick, who chairs the Bar Association's probate and trust committee in St. Louis. Just mention in your will that you're keeping a list of who gets what. You can keep the list at home and change it whenever you like, as long as you sign and date it. The list won't work for real estate, stocks, bonds, bank accounts or any cash equivalents.

Not that money is utterly forgotten. Lawyer Les Kotzer co-authored a book called "The Family Fight: How to avoid it." It's a primer on avoiding posthumous squabbles.

He tells of a mother who held $10,000 in an account jointly with a daughter. When the mother died, the daughter pocketed the money. That sent her sister through the roof. She thought the loot should be shared.

Lawyer Lisa Portnoff sees the same thing in St. Louis. The old person names one child as a beneficiary on bank accounts, insurance policies and other property, thinking he'll share it with the other kids. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.

Beneficiary designations are a way to avoid probate costs, but be careful with them. "They work well as long as you've really thought through the process," she says.

Speaking of thinking things through, Kotzer tells of the bowling alley owner who left his business to one son. The other children got everything else he owned.

The owner apparently forgot that he'd put the land under the bowling alley in a different title. It went to his other children, who kept raising the rent on the favored son.

Try to make peace before you shuffle off to the Great Beyond, says Glick. "If everybody is getting along, things go very well. If your heirs are not getting along, see if you can make them get along," he says.

Blended families tend to unblend themselves quickly. "Most of the battles I see are stepkid-stepparent battles," says Glick. "If the stepmother gets anything, it's more than the stepkids
want. If the stepkids get anything, it's more than she wants."

So, be very clear in your will about how much goes to your spouse and to each child. In Missouri, a spouse must receive at least half the estate, says Glick. You can't disinherit your spouse unless the spouse agrees to it in advance. That's usually through a prenuptial

In Illinois, a spouse must get at least a third if there are surviving descendants, and half if there are none.

Kotzer, tells the story of a man whose father died and left everything to his stepmother. When the stepmother died, she left everything to her own kids, cutting her husband's son out of the will.

You can certainly disinherit your adult children, your crazy cousins and your annoying brothers and sisters. But if you're going to cut out a son or daughter, it's good to put something in the document saying why, says Vogel.

"Some people go so far as to leave the kid a dollar, just so he can't claim he was left with nothing," said Vogel. That heads off the claim that you just accidentally forgot about him.

When cutting someone from a will, lawyer Glick goes so far as to videotape the will signing. He'll ask the client questions - such as the name of the president - to establish that the client is of sound mind and knows what he'd doing.

Of course, there's one perfect way to guarantee family peace after you pass on. "Spend all your money before you die," says Glick.

Kotzer's book, published by Continental Atlantic Publications, is available through the Web site


Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications Inc.