By Alan L. Nobler
I was recently in Superior Court working to help a family resolve a conflict over the estate of their patriarch. An adult son and two adult sisters were suing their mother over whether they should receive their ultimate share of the family estate now, rather than waiting for their mother to die. Sounds a little cold, doesn’t it? But the crux of the case was an ambiguity caused by their father when he drafted the plan himself. This alone created the situation, but it was aggravated by the fact that none of the children had any idea what their father had in mind when he wrote it or when he died. What a great legacy. (The answer to what happened is at the end of this article.)
OK, so old dad didn’t want to pay the lawyers to write the plan. But that alone is no panacea that will protect against later conflicts. The only protection I know of is to make sure that the whole family knows what you want – and sometimes why.
ARE family conflicts causing you to avoid making an estate plan. You know what you’d like to have happen, but you don’t know how to talk with your family. Your problem could be:
- fear of conflict
- uncertainty about options
- a child with a problem
- a parent with a problem
- a problem relationship
- choice of guardians
DON’T leave your family conflicts unresolved. Leave a legacy of:
- conflict resolution
- caring solutions
HOW do we do this? COLLABORATIVE PRACTICE. Our Collaborative professionals know how to help families approach their conflicts as problems to be solved, not battles to be fought. Lawyers, counselors and financial professionals have trained to work together – not at odds with each other – to discuss conflicts with respect; sharing from experience ways to maintain family relationships, not leave them at risk.
WE have dealt with families where otherwise “good” estate plans have “gone bad” because the decedent did not discuss concerns with the family, simply leaving the “problem” to be worked out between survivors after his passing. This rarely works; much of the estate may then be dissipated in court costs and attorney fees. Whether it is children suing parents or fighting between themselves, these conflicts are much more difficult and expensive to resolve after a death than while in the planning stage.
FAMILIES today frequently have someone with a drug problem, mental illness or some other disability that needs to be supervised. There may be educational or other special needs. Qualifying for governmental assistance or simply preserving assets to supplement governmental assistance is a tricky minefield to navigate. Our professionals can lead the discussion and help the family design solutions that they all can embrace.
LEGACY is a concept that goes beyond money or property. What we teach our children about solving conflicts stays with them for their entire lives. Teaching them how to discuss and solve a conflict may help them be more successful, productive members of society than leaving them to “fight it out” after our passing.
In the case discussed at the start of this article, the Judge determined that the patriarch had in fact intended that the estate be held together for the balance of the mother’s life, then distributed. So, the kids all had to wait. But the family spent over $100,000 getting to that point.