Avoid Turning a Family Disagreement into a Legal Dispute
There are many ways that family disputes over end-of-life care for a parent and inheritance can have serious consequences when they become the subject of legal filings and court cases. To address this possibility, you can create (or amend) your estate plan seeking to diffuse these potential issues before they become legal challenges.
Every situation is unique. Everybody’s family has a different mix of personalities, degrees of wants versus needs, and problem-solving skills. The American family system is more complex than ever, with a 2021 divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, divorces, remarriages, committed long-term partner relationships, biological children, stepchildren, and physical decentralization from other family members.
Fights occur in families that are rich and poor. It turns out the dollar amount is often irrelevant. Problems stem from mismatched expectations, including but not limited to:
Sibling rivalry – Tensions between siblings tend to boil over after the passing of a parent. This situation can be especially true when inheritable assets go to step-siblings. Grief often triggers reflection, and memories of clashes and disagreements never settled tend to present themselves in real-time. The settlement of your estate can become the battleground to settle the score of a long-time feud. Avoid the situation by appointing a professional fiduciary as your trustee. If you do not prefer this option, select a family member trustee with no stake in the rivalry to mitigate its effects.
The economic disparity among beneficiaries – Socio-economic imbalances of estate heirs can destabilize the entire process. A wealthier heir may afford to hold an inheritable asset, while less economically stable heirs may want to sell for immediate financial gain. The problem seems to become compounded by the number of inheritors. You can avoid these disputes by leaving specific instructions as to the preservation or sale of real property. You may opt for “cash-out” provisions that will pay the less financially stable heirs the value of their stake in the real property and allow the more financially stable heir to retain full ownership.
Co-trustees – Even family members with great relationships and the best of intentions can clash as to the administration of your estate. All it takes is two inheritors and one grandfather clock. Executors must move quickly and decisively to administer an estate because all inheritors are waiting for their share of the payout. Avoid this problem and name only one to administer your estate.
Beneficiary dependency or mental illness – Irrational behavior that becomes part of an already sensitive situation, like your death and the settlement of your estate, will slow progress and create ill will. Any history of psychological instability or substance abuse threatens to derail an orderly process. To avoid situations with chemical dependency, create contingencies for that heir to test clean for a specific time or establish a discretionary trust where a competent trustee handles access to assets on behalf of the addicted individual. In the case of mental illness, establish a special needs trust or build specific provisions into your base trust. This protection permits the beneficiary to qualify for government assistance and still receive trust disbursements.
Undue influence – End-of-life care for a parent, usually falls to one person (often a sibling) handling most of the caretaking. The uneven workload and intimate daily contact can leave the caretaker believing they are entitled to more and coerce the parent to change documents to the caretaker’s benefit. Undue influence is more often than not a product of the other offspring’s apathy. Prevention includes paying close attention to the increasing susceptibility of an aging parent and using digital means, audio-video cameras, digital monitors that track change in blood pressure et al., to identify parent stress and prevent caregiver coercion for personal gain.
Late marriage – Love knows no bounds. Late in life, marriages happen, and you can expect resentment of your new spouse by existing heirs, particularly in a blended family with children who are primarily, or only, on the settler’s side. Divorces, remarriage, and deaths make updating your estate planning documents a must. Upon remarrying, it is essential to place assets in your trust or modify your existing trust and Will to clarify the division of assets.
Advance benefits to one heir and not others – If one of your children needs financial assistance now or another is starting a fledgling business, yet another might require a down payment for a first home or bailout money from suffocating college debt, you may opt to provide financial help. These scenarios are common but can strain relations during probate among heirs not receiving the same benefit. Avoid this situation by noting in your trust language which heir received an advancement to their inheritance and how to deduct that previously received an amount from your estate assets. If you do not, some inheritors may receive a double payout, ruffling the feathers of other heirs.
Estrangement or disinheritance – Children and other potential heirs left out of the inheritance, typically have nothing to lose by challenging their exclusion. This situation becomes worse in the case of blended families and their complexities, particularly if the sidelined heir pairs the challenge with a secondary claim like undue influence. You can avoid this by keeping your trust updated. A more recent trust will include a more modern disinheritance clause covering changes in this area of law. Make sure you understand the specific language in your trust regarding disinheritance.
A carefully crafted estate plan that accounts for your heirs and potential relationship problems is the first step to reducing a legal challenge stemming from a family feud. An elder law, estate planning attorney knows the problems that may crop up among family members and can address these issues using the appropriate legal entities with clear and specific language. Reducing the possibility of a legal challenge to your estate brings peace of mind to you and your future heirs.
We help families navigate the difficult decisions around caregiving and how to pay for care. We would be happy to meet with you to discuss your particular needs. Please contact our office at 302.651.0113.