Understanding and openness are the keys to a positive outcome. Within this context, understanding means to have an awareness of the causes of estate problems in order to eliminate them, and openness means to communicate about the estate when family is together.
While most would think that money is the primary cause of disagreement, it isn’t really, because money is typically split evenly among heirs. As long as a trustworthy, honest person is appointed as the executor or personal representative in charge of the estate, when the bank is presented with a death certificate and a Letter of Testamentary, the money will be split as evenly among the heirs as your will directed.
However, without a clear understanding of the estate plan, personal property division, (i.e., your “stuff”), can be problematic; in fact, it is considered the number one ‘fighting mad’ estate issue. Typically an estate includes only one of each specific personal property item; for example, one of a specific painting, one garnet ring, one antique clock, or one key family heirloom. Therefore, in the case of personal property inheritance, one specific heir will inherit each specific item, and the remaining heirs will not. So, if brother Joe goes to mom’s house the day after she dies and takes a specific painting because he knows she always wanted him to have it, in order for brother Jim to retrieve it from Joe, Jim will have to file criminal charges against his brother and prove he stole it from the estate. And, even if you are willing to file charges, you will not necessarily be able to prove your case.
Believe it or not, I read of a case where a brother and sister stopped talking to each other over a fondly remembered $1.50 Tweety Bird that mom kept in the kitchen. In another case the family heirloom grandfather clock was promised by the mom to both the daughter and son, without either of them knowing, resulting in a fist fight the day before the funeral. In estate planning, we know emotional ties are normally more meaningful than financial value.
For these reasons, openness is so important, as opposed to never discussing the details of an estate with your heirs. While some parents may wish to have this conversation as a family many will prefer a private talk with each child, as most families do not want to stop Thanksgiving dinner to discuss how to handle the estate. In our nuclear family world, having the larger family together is precious time rarely used for topics like death. Yet I find that taking some time at the right moment to talk about such a serious topic can lead to greater peace in the future. A family gathering for a holiday, funeral or a wedding might be the right moment to call a family meeting clearly designed to be a serious time to discuss business, and a time to share an understanding about the wishes of the parents and the estate plan. Honoring, understanding and openness can go a long way in helping the family through some of the difficulties that will arise after the loss of a parent.