Don’t Let Your Law Firm Turn into the Jerry Springer Show (How to Avoid Family Disputes)

Jul 10, 2017 11:00:00 AM

Whether it’s fighting over a complex multi-million-dollar estate comprised of multiple homes and exotic assets or simply a prized family heirloom, family disputes aren’t uncommon in the world of estate planning. These disputes can be complicated by sibling rivalries, beneficiaries of varying economic standing, and poor communication.

A comprehensive estate plan can help avoid or at least mitigate, these disputes. After all, every attorney would prefer to avoid altercations in his or her office, and we don’t want family meetings turning into scenes from a daytime talk show, complete with chairs flying across the room. It’s not just hyperbole: Robin Williams’ children and widow feuded over his $100 million estate for nearly a year before a settlement was reached.

Here’s how you can help your clients avoid family disputes.

Anticipate family conflict

Estate AttorneySome family dynamics are more complicated than others. Clients who have remarried and have stepchildren, for example, might present a more challenging estate planning scenario. While spouses must make plans for each other, they also need to consider their natural children who may not be on good terms with a stepparent. It’s important to work with your clients to understand their family dynamic, discuss various estate planning options, and the repercussions of specific choices, and then craft an estate plan in accordance with your clients’ needs.  

Personal property also has the potential to create conflict. Fighting over jewelry, artwork, automobiles, and even photographs is not uncommon. To prevent potential disputes, work with your clients to create a list of personal property with specific instructions on how it is to be allocated. These lists, often called Personal Property Memorandums, can be used with your client’s will or trust.

Addressing financial disparity

A beneficiary who is wealthier than the others can create the potential for a family dispute. While one beneficiary may be able to hold an asset (such a home), the others might want to sell that asset immediately. An effective way to mitigate this potential problem is to advise your client to include specific instructions for sale (or retention) of physical assets in your client’s will or trust.

Problems can also arise if an estate is divided equally among beneficiaries. In the case of financial disparity, this action might be viewed as unfair to beneficiaries who are less well off. As an attorney, you can help mitigate potential problems by suggesting that your clients discuss their plans with beneficiaries before death or leave letters after death explaining their decisions.

Overall, family disputes can be mitigated with some planning and communication. Start a conversation with your clients about where they see the potential for conflict, and advise them on how to proactively prevent family disputes. While emotional blowback may be beyond your control, drafting a solid estate plan will help your clients meet their goals and avoid legal disputes.

If you find yourself in a difficult situation with a client, it can help to call on the expertise of other estate planning attorneys. WealthCounsel’s community of more than 5,500 attorneys can provide recommendations on tough client problems and provide tips and tricks on how to help your clients avoid disputes.

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