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Most people I know have at least one horror story of a family conflict over how an estate was handled.  Whether it was the trustee who thought they could do whatever they wanted, or one beneficiary who just wanted to fight with everyone else, and didn’t care if it all burned to the ground, disaster stories are unfortunately all too common.  It might seem strange for an attorney to rail against such a lucrative source of work, but the reality is that these family conflicts damage relationships.

Part of an effective estate plan is preventing future conflict, if at all possible.  So how do you do that?

Find the Flashpoints

Don’t assume you know what things are important to your children.  That little figurine sitting on the shelf collecting dust that you can’t remember where it came from could have a lot of sentimental value to a child, or to all of them.  If you don’t ask them what things bring back fond memories, you won’t know.  If appropriate, share what items have great memories for you.  Talking about these things can be done with everyone together, or individually as opportunity presents itself. 

Decide between flexibility and finality

There are two approaches to resolving a conflict: giving everyone the space they need to negotiate a resolution, or make a decision yourself.  Some problems can be solved better by the trustee, and some problems should be resolved ahead of time.  For personal property items, it’s common to have everyone take a turn picking an object until everyone is ready to get rid of the rest at a garage sale. 

“Fair” Isn’t Necessarily Even

Most people assume that dividing things equally between their children is the “fairest” way to go.  But before you decide to slice the pie equally, take a minute to reflect on your children’s individual circumstances.  We worked with one client to balance out a large income tax differential between his children.  While not every plan is going to require that level of complexity, many parents have made arrangements with individual children, like helping them purchase a home for example, that won’t be honored unless that arrangement is formalized. 

Finish with Good Communication

The number one source of conflict between heirs is when children reach different conclusions about what mom or dad would have wanted.  The good news about this problem is that it is entirely preventable – by taking the time to communicate your wishes, you can eliminate the guesswork on their part.

Image courtesy of Eddy Van

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