The Family War - Winning The Inheritance Battle

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The Family War In The Media

The National Post

Where There's A Will ...

Authors say inheritance battles are like divorce between siblings

Jonathan Chevreau, Financial Post

There is a dark side to the "trillion-dollar" transfer of wealth to the Baby Boomers. That is, families battling over inheritances. Two Canadian wills and estates lawyers have followed up their bestselling The Family Fight with the more ominous The Family War.

The cover of the original book, which sold 22,000 copies, shows a torn black and white photo of two brothers divided. In like fashion, The Family War features a photo of an entire family torn in three pieces.

Both books feature two principals of Thornhill, Ont.-based Fish & Associates: estates litigator Barry Fish and will-drafting expert Les Kotzer. For the follow-up book, they've enlisted a third co-author: Jordan Atin, a specialist in estates and trust law.

The difference in the two books is stark. The Family Fight was subtitled "How to Avoid It." Sadly, the follow-up outlines what can happen when things escalate into a nasty and expensive war. The Family War's subtitle is "Winning the Inheritance Battle." (As in "I win, you lose.")

The authors liken a family war over a parent's estate to a "divorce between siblings."

Disputes over estates, they write, "develop into some of the most emotionally charged cases that lawyers see."

The passing of a loved one can "unleash a potent mixture of love, hate, guilt, anger, jealousy and a host of other emotions," the trio write.

"In essence, the family war is the use of the legal system to address one or more of these emotions."

The book is full of occasionally amusing, but more often tragic stories of what these lawyers experience in their practices.

Problems usually begin with poorly drafted wills or no wills at all. Even where wills exist and appear solid, they may be contested by nasty siblings who value money over family. It's a sad testament to human nature but an all-too-real phenomenon.

While you might assume nasty battles happen more often in wealthy families -- since there's more to fight over -- that's not always the case, says Kotzer.

The Family Fight garnered much publicity in the United States, with Kotzer drawing hundreds of phone-in calls during talk radio shows. You can be sure the new book will attract even more attention.

Kotzer is also a songwriter and has self-published a two-song CD performed by Glass Tiger's Alan Frue. One song is called The Family Fight; the second, Photos in a Drawer, describes the angst of a family looking back on family photos after the death of their mother.

If that's not enough, Kotzer has his sights set on producing a screenplay about the topic. From the stories I heard over several interviews, I'd think there's enough material for a television series. I'm just not sure whether it would be a comedy or a tragedy. The new book says most families assume "this sort of thing could never happen to them." But it happens all the time.

They list 20 warnings signs. For example, perhaps one sibling shares a joint bank account with one of your still-living parents. What if a brother lives beyond his means? He may be a "waiter" -- someone waiting for his inheritance to bail himself out of his financial predicament.

Warning signs may not even involve money. What if there is a favourite painting in the family? Ask yourself how you'd feel if it ends up hanging on your sister's wall. "Many family wars are fights over items with great sentimental value, but little monetary value," the authors write. "The consistent experience of the authors allows us to state emphatically that the battles among children are very often over memories, as opposed to money."

Of course, money is a close second, and squabbles over it are less likely to be resolved by friendly negotiations.

What if another sibling sacrificed years of her life to care for an ailing parent? Will she expect additional compensation?

Or, what if your parents gave your brother money for university but not you, or helped other siblings with down payments on their first homes?

And here's a biggie: What if your mother has already died and your father has hooked up with a much younger woman?

Estate disputes are not like other lawsuits. "A family estate battle is likely to haunt you for the rest of your life, and your family for generations to come."

Kotzer and Fish close with the observation that -- despite their new book's subtitle -- winning a family inheritance battle may at best be a hollow victory. No amount of money can compensate for a shattered family. Sadly, too many learn this lesson too late.

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