The loss of a loved one puts stress on individuals and on the family dynamic. Adding money and property to the mix can be a recipe for conflict—conflict that sometimes ends in estate litigation. When your heirs fight amongst themselves, the damage can be significant. In addition to the high emotional cost and impact on other family members, estate litigation can significantly reduce the assets available for distribution to the heirs. Often, everybody loses.
Of course, you can’t anticipate every specific point of contention, and disagreements may arise among the family members you least expected to clash. But, there are steps you can take to minimize conflicts.
Minimizing Probate Conflicts Among Your Loved Ones
- Thorough Estate Planning: Your first line of defense against probate conflicts, and the one that forms the foundation for all others, is investing the time and resources necessary to create a solid estate plan.
- Keeping Your Estate Plan Up to Date: When an estate plan hasn’t been reviewed for years, changes such as divorce, remarriage, the death of a beneficiary or the birth of additional children can leave gaps that open the door to conflicts.
- Consider Discussing Your Estate Plan with Your Heirs: The wisdom of discussing your estate plan with your intended beneficiaries depends in large part on your family, so this question calls for your best personal judgment. Discussing your plans with your family in advance can avert conflicts among your heirs—or, get them started early.
- Make Specific Bequests of Personal Property: Sometimes, probate conflicts erupt over small items that may not even have significant monetary value. By bequeathing personal property specifically rather than leaving the family to divide it up, you can avert arguments over your grandmother’s wedding ring or the clock that’s hung on your kitchen wall for 50 years.
- Address Outstanding Loans or Gifts to Heirs: Money loaned or given to one child during the deceased’s lifetime is a common source of conflict. Was the transfer a gift or a loan? If it was a loan, should it be canceled or set off against the recipient’s inheritance? The interests of your heirs will obviously be at odds in this situation, but you can minimize conflict by providing clear answers to these questions.
- Think Carefully About Disinheriting Heirs: Disinheriting a child obviously provides an incentive to contest your will, and if that child is left nothing, there’s little risk associated with litigation. Providing some type of bequest to the child with a “no contest” clause can mitigate the risk of a will contest. Further, if you are considering disinheriting a child due to a problem such as drug addiction, you may have other options that will allow you to exercise greater control while providing for that child.
Even the closest of families can conflict in the high-stress period after the loss of a parent or other loved one. Those conflicts can be significantly aggravated by uncertainty about the deceased’s wishes, unexpected imbalances in distribution, attachments to personal property, or open questions. Your role in providing for your family after your death isn’t just to accumulate assets to pass along, but to do so in a way that minimizes the stress and conflict associated with the transfer of that property.
Whether you are just starting to think about an estate plan, need to review your plan to ensure that it is up to date, or are concerned that you haven’t been specific enough in your instructions or have left gaps and open questions, an experienced estate planning lawyer can be your best resource.