Avoiding Family Fights Over Inheritance

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) — “Never assume you know a man until you have divided an estate with him.” This piece of Confucian wisdom came in a fortune cookie. Now, as baby boomers are splitting up trillions of dollars in assets passed down from Depression-era parents, two Toronto attorneys have written a book aimed at preventing enmity among middle-aged siblings. “I’m seeing really bad fights,” Les Kotzer said in a phone interview. “I had a woman smash a crystal vase in my parking lot because she had bought it for her mom, and the mother didn’t think to leave it back to the daughter. The mother left all her personal possessions to be sold and liquidated. This woman didn’t want her brothers to sell it, and out of spite they didn’t want to let her have it.” “The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It,” by Kotzer and his partner, Barry Fish, is available in both American and Canadian editions. Based on their years of experience as wills and estates lawyers, the authors suggest strategies to consider in order to preserve harmony within the family. They propose questions to ask your attorney and warn of the pitfalls in homemade wills. The authors try to get readers to think about eventualities most people would rather avoid. “It’s not a book about how to save taxes,” Kotzer said, “but rather how to save your family — how to prevent the people gathered around the Thanksgiving table from conflict after your death.” Kotzer described a Jaguar-driving, gold-bedecked boomer who came into his office with his wife. The car was leased and the home heavily mortgaged. “What do you do for a living?” the attorney asked. “My husband’s a waiter,” the woman answered. “He’s waiting for his inheritance.” Many of these “waiters” enjoy lifestyles far more comfortable than their parents, who learned how to pinch pennies during the Depression, ever allowed themselves. A typical widow “didn’t go to the movies every two weeks, doesn’t know what a DVD player is, and doesn’t go out to buy CDs for $25 bucks,” Kotzer told United Press International. “Everything was saved with coupons. We laughed at those parents when we bought the Internet stock. … Now they’re the mattress that my generation is falling back on.” The language in this area of law scares people off, so they tune out and neglect their wills and matters of inheritance, Kotzer said. The first step is to understand the basics and to know that it’s not something that only rich people do. It affects everyone. About 70 percent of Americans don’t have a will in place. And people must plan for incapacity, which requires power of attorney, not just death. “Having a will in place is not good enough,” Kotzer said. “A will takes effect when you die. “A lot of people don’t understand that if they become incapacitated — Alzheimer’s, stroke, what have you — their assets are for all intents and purposes frozen. Their executor named in their will cannot deal with those assets. So children are making competing applications in court to take over for Dad. That’s why you need the power of attorney. If not, these kids can fight tooth and nail over who’s going to be appointed. Often the one with the most money wins the legal battle.” Kotzer said many parents don’t pay enough attention to who they appoint as their power of attorney and the executor of their will. “Don’t assume that the one who is appointed wants the responsibility, and don’t assume that those not appointed don’t care that they were not consulted.” The “code of silence” about inheritance between parents and their children must be overcome, Kotzer said. “Secrecy is not golden.” How to broach the subject? Let them understand the horror stories in the 20-page section titled “Inheriting Turmoil — Real Life Examples.” The principle that equality isn’t always fairness is best illustrated by the care-giving child, who could feel slighted or used by an equal share of the inheritance. “A caregiver waits in doctors’ offices and in hospital rooms,” Kotzer said. “She’s up at night waiting to give the 3 a.m. medication. The other kids don’t have to do all this. If you leave everything equally to all three kids — and one is your caregiver, and the others you haven’t seen in five years — you could have a tremendous war among your kids.” The authors advise leaving a separate letter as well as a provision in the will to explain why the care-giving child is getting more. Parents should not assume goodwill among their children, Kotzer said, because what appears to be goodwill among siblings may disappear after their parents die. “Don’t leave money to one child on the assumption that he will take care of his sister. They may love each other, but their spouses may hate each other. You can’t depend on your son’s wife to protect your daughter. Don’t assume your children will have permanent marriages. Don’t assume that your daughter-in-law will be your daughter-in-law in 20 years.” Kotzer said people don’t just fight over money, but also items of sentimental value. “They fight over memories,” he told UPI, “and they fight over feelings of being slighted.” Parents don’t realize that if they leave their assets to their less successful children — who need the money the most — they emotionally disinherit their more successful offspring, the attorney said. “Deal with those personal items. Just because your child is wealthy, don’t think that he doesn’t value them. I always hear, ‘Ah, the kids will work it out.’ Well, quite often they don’t work it out. The watch that the son always wanted goes into the pot and is sold. “Think long and hard before you cut a kid out of the will, because you may never be able to put him back in,” Kotzer warned. “You may get sick, infirm. And before you cut a kid out of a will, speak to the child who stands to benefit.” Many favored children would rather forgo the benefit rather than face the disinherited sibling. “You’re not helping your kid, necessarily, by cutting their sibling out. “Don’t use a will as a weapon. Who are you really teaching a lesson? You’re hurting your other kids as well because they have to live with this disgruntled brother. “Be aware of the little things that can destroy your family.” “The Family Fight” is not available in stores but can be ordered on the toll-free number (877) 439-3999 and on familyfight.com. Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.