The Family War - Winning The Inheritance Battle

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The Family War In The Media


Wills and Estates Lawyers Preach Family Unity

By Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf
Staff Reporter

There are more wars coming.

They won’t involve tanks or guns, or take place in distant theatres of war.

Instead, they’ll be fought on a battlefield that can’t be mapped, cleansed or forgotten, because these wars will be waged within your family.

According to many legal experts, some of the ugliest fights in our community today are a result of family infighting over estates and inheritances.

Jordan Atin, associate counsel with Hull & Hull LLP in Toronto, is disturbed by the growth in his industry.

“When I started here eight years ago, we were just two lawyers. Now we’re at 16. The whole area is exploding,” Atin said.

Imagine taking your sister or brother as a symbolic hostage or human shield.

Picture twisting your parent’s last wishes into verbal ammunition to lay emotional waste to their children and grandchildren.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again, say the experts.

“I’ve seen [situations] where families no longer attend the same shivahs together,” said Les Kotzer, a Toronto wills and inheritances lawyer.

That’s why he co-authored two books on the subject, The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It and The Family War: Winning the Inheritance Battle.

“A funny thing happens [to families] when both parents die. It’s like the referee is gone,” said Atin, one of Kotzer’s co-authors.

And as the baby boom generation continues to deal with its collective mortality, estates and inheritance professionals are continually being thrust into inheritance battles that wills lawyers believe can be avoided.

Fred and Richard Levitt, a father-and-son estates law team with Levitt, Lightman, Dewar & Graham in Toronto, see the problem daily.

“There’s more [fighting] now, because there is more money involved. As a result of that, greed takes over,” Fred said.

One of the best ways to pre-empt fights is to make sure a will is in good working order.

“I’ve seen a lot of really ugly stuff,” Richard said. “If parents can make their intentions clear before they die, and settle everything with their beneficiaries, that’s best.”

But inheritance wars aren’t always about money. Often, sentimental items are the ones that cause the most anguish.

“Parents shouldn’t assume there is goodwill among their children,” Kotzer said. “Because after they are gone, how do children divide up a wedding ring, or a treasured picture?”

A classic situation is when the “favoured” child becomes executor and siblings use the scenario to vent years of resentment at them by contesting the will, Atin said.

That’s why deciding on an executor is crucial.

Barry Fish, of Fish & Associates and another of Kotzer’s co-authors, has worked as an executor’s lawyer for 33 years.

Fish advises families to use an independent executor if none is specified in a will.

“People don’t realize that executors have serious obligations and can be sued for damages if beneficiaries so choose,” he said.

But if you are made an executor of a family estate, keep your cool, he advised. It could help protect you against future claims about your behaviour.

“The more unreasonable your family, the more reasonable you should be,” Fish said.

Kotzer laments what he sees as the increasing deterioration of family bonds because of estate wars.

He recalled how one client recently informed him that her sisters were all now “dead to her,” while another insisted on calling his brother “my mother’s other child.”

All this was due to greed and vitriolic attacks over inheritances.

“It’s a tragedy,” Kotzer said. “And it can be avoided or minimized in many cases, with the right discussion.”

Richard Levitt sees the same family breakdowns.

“I just had two sisters come in. Their parents left everything to their brothers because they [had] an ‘old school’ mentality,” Richard said. “They assumed the brothers would divvy up the inheritance, but the [sisters] were out of luck and deeply resentful.”

Kotzer suggests that siblings and extended family consider where their support will come from in the future if they alienate their kin in an estate battle.

“What will happen to them in 30 years from now if they become sick?,” he asked. “They won’t have that loving support at their bedside.”

All the more reason for families to get talking about their inheritances now.

“Families [should] be able to go to the same simchahs together [instead of] creating an enemy of their sibling,” Kotzer said. “That’s the horror that I’m witnessing. Don’t let this happen to you.”

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