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Fighting family strife with an estate plan

The Tolstoy adage "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is not one you wish to have applied to your family if you can help it. If you have children who are estranged from each other or are unwilling or incapable of communicating with each other, your decisions in your estate plan may cause more grief than relief.

A example of avoidable strife can be found in the story of a woman who died in 1988. She bequeathed a vacation home to her four adult children. That seems simple enough. However, they could not come to a consensus regarding what to do with the property and argued about it...for 17 years and through three lawsuits.

If your children already have trouble communicating with each other and you pass away without establishing an estate plan that addresses their individual needs, then the possibility for a contentious dispute increases.

Here are some strategies to keep your family from going down this road:

  • Open the communication lines to know what they want and need: It can be so hard to know that your children are arguing, but ignoring the situation will only make it worse. If your children aren't speaking to each other, they may still speak with you. Find out which part of your estate your kids personally value and, if possible, draft an estate plan that gives each child the items they want most.
  • Designate an outside executor: For families with extreme problems, consider designating a person outside of your family as the executor of your estate. The advantage of naming a non-family member as your executor is that he or she should be capable of resolving disputes without emotion.
  • Emotional equality, financial equity: You know your children best. One may struggle financially and another may only want that favorite quilt that you have packed away. Base the decisions in your estate plan around building an emotional equality between your kids. This means communicating with them about how and why you are drafting your plan the way you are so that no one will be surprised. By making it clear that you are prioritizing their emotional needs first, their individual financial needs will be easier to address.

Avoid potential disputes for your adult children

The guiding principle should be crafting a plan that puts a stop to potential disputes before they start. A solid estate plan takes away the opportunity to disagree and allows all sides to accept what has been settled.

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