When parents die, one of the most difficult things to do is split up the estate among the children.  No matter how big the estate, siblings may battle for years over their inheritance.  However, according to many family law attorneys, these disputes can be avoided altogether with proper planning.  This planning can require more than simply writing a will.  Leaving detailed instructions regarding valuables, appointing a professional as an executor of the estate, and communicating your wishes before death are just a few simple ways to prevent your heirs from fighting over your estate once you are gone.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal lays out a few other common ways to avoid disputes among siblings over your estate. 


Fighting Over Petty Items

            Fighting over items that may not have much monetary value, but that are extremely sentimental, is a common area of conflict in estate settlements.  Parents should foresee that their heirs may have emotional attachment to certain items and should plan ahead to solve any conflicts they think may arise.  One way to make sure there is no conflict over sentimental items is to make specific bequests to heirs after you have spoken to them and determined what is most important to each of them. 

            If there is a significant difference in the market value or price of the objects that are left to different heirs, the will can provide for a compensating amount of cash to make up for any shortfalls.  In order to make this an option, however, a will should be updated from time to time to make sure that it accurately reflects what you own and the correct value of the items. 


Hire a Professional

            While many families would prefer to keep the role of executor within the family, most financial advisors recommend that the person writing the will should “face the facts” that there are rivalries within their family and plan accordingly.  Hiring a bank or similar institution to act as the executor of your estate will often help to avoid fierce competition and contention among family members. 

            Cost is one of the most common reasons that families sometimes choose to use an individual executor rather than a bank.  However, executor fees vary by state and by corporate fee schedule.  Your attorney can help you find a professional executor that fits your needs and budget constraints. 


Don’t Surprise Heirs

            One of the most common causes for family feuds after a death is the feeling by one child that he or she is treated unequally or unfairly compared to the other children or heirs.  Hard feelings can also occur when one child is named trustee of a family trust over another child.  Even great estate planning cannot avoid all family fights altogether, but disputes can be minimized by better communication among family members while the parents are still alive. 

            Disparate treatment in estate planning documents can often lead to justified feelings of contention.  According to most estate planning attorneys, the ultimate goal of a will, trust, or similar document is to avoid any surprises after death. If children are going to be treated differently, it is important to let them know ahead of time and also let them know why. 


No Contest Clause

            For particularly contentious relationships among siblings, parents may want to think about adding a “no contest clause” to their wills.  This clause essentially states that anyone who disputes or contests the will forfeits the share of the estate he or she has been given.  However, for this type of clause to work, there has to be enough incentive for the potential contestant to accept the bequest under the will rather than lose everything if the contest is unsuccessful.

H. Van Smith
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Trusted Virginia Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg