When it comes to estate planning, one undeniable fact is that we can’t predict how our family will react when we’re no longer around. Nobody wants to think about their loved ones squabbling over inheritances or making critical medical decisions in a courtroom, but it’s an unfortunate reality that occurs more often than we’d like.
Family dynamics are complex and can sometimes lead to disagreements, even in the best of times. However, when a family faces a tragedy, even minor tensions can escalate into major conflicts, especially when money or sentimental items are involved. The emotional cost of these conflicts is immeasurable, and it can damage relationships irreparably.
You can significantly reduce the risk of such conflicts by seeking guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney rather than relying on DIY documents, as even the most carefully drafted papers can’t address these emotional matters as effectively as a skilled attorney can.
While it’s impossible to predict your family’s reactions, there are a few common factors that often lead to disputes:
Poor fiduciary selection: Estate planning disputes can arise when the individuals you’ve chosen to handle your affairs after your passing or incapacity don’t carry out their responsibilities properly. These roles – like a power of attorney agent, executor or trustee – involve a wide range of duties that can last for years.
The person you appoint, known as a fiduciary, is legally obligated to fulfill these duties and act in the best interests of the beneficiaries named in your plan. A breach of fiduciary duty can happen intentionally or unintentionally, causing conflicts among your loved ones. Breaches can involve failing to provide required financial information, misusing estate assets, making improper distributions, or neglecting financial obligations.
To minimize this risk, it’s crucial to choose your fiduciaries carefully, ensuring transparency and clear communication within your family. Your estate planning documents should clearly outline the fiduciary’s responsibilities, and you can include provisions that allow beneficiaries to replace a fiduciary if needed.
Contesting the validity of wills and trusts: Disputes often arise when the validity of your will or trust is questioned in court. To contest the validity, challengers must prove legal grounds such as improper execution, lack of mental capacity, undue influence or fraud. Only individuals with “legal standing,” typically family members who would inherit under state law if no documents existed, can contest your will or trust.
To prevent disputes, consult with an attorney, especially if you anticipate disagreements within the family. Holding family meetings can facilitate understanding and reduce potential conflicts.
Blended families and conflict: Blended families, where spouses and children come from previous relationships, often have conflicting interests when it comes to inheritance. Proper estate planning with clear terms can help address these complexities. For example, you can specify that assets should be held in trust for your surviving spouse, with a mandatory distribution to your children upon their death. If investment strategies differ, naming a neutral third-party successor trustee can balance the interests of both parties.
To minimize conflict, engage in open conversations with all affected family members while you’re still of sound mind to articulate your intentions and hopes for the future. Open communication is essential for maintaining family harmony after one’s passing.
Send your questions to [email protected] and use “Alpine Mountaineer Estate Planning Question” as the subject. We’ll answer your questions in our upcoming columns.
This article is provided by your local estate planning attorney, Corina Colan.
The Law Office of Corina I. Colan / (909) 265-3315 / [email protected] / www.colanlegal.com