No one wants family members to fight over their belongings, but sometimes a well-written will may not be enough to stop it. Many wills have a clause that states that any assets remaining in your estate after your specific bequests will be “divided equally” between your children or other named individuals. While that may seem straightforward and fair, unfortunately, there still may be family disputes over your possessions. It’s the job of the executor of your estate to distribute those assets to heirs so that person will be stuck with dealing with your loved ones. However, you can help avoid some of these problems by taking proactive steps.
- Prepare a letter of instruction for your executor. You can give guidance to your executor to make the distribution process easier. Some good practices for an executor include giving loved ones extra time to make decisions. While the executor probably wants to close the estate as soon as possible and some family members may feel the same, others may resist and should be accommodated within reason. Also, have individuals choose items they want on their own with no one else present because including others may influence or delay their decisions and lead to more conflicts later.
- Talk to your family and ask them what they want. Many of us think that our loved ones want all our stuff, including furniture, china, collectibles and the like. The reality is that they probably won’t be interested in the bulk of it, but there may be specific things that are important to them. Ask who wants what. Discuss it with each person independently to avoid someone asking for an object simply because another party wants it. Unfortunately, old rivalries and jealousy can get in the way when family members are choosing items.
- If you think there will be fights over certain objects, bring in a mediator. An elder law mediator is a neutral third party who can help facilitate discussion and encourage the parties to come to an agreement. He or she will not render a decision or force the parties to settle. This process can be very helpful in resolving disputes in a way that doesn’t destroy family relationships and allows everyone to share their feelings. Sometimes it is not the dollar value of an item but its “emotional” value that causes conflict. A mediator can help during the estate planning process or the executor can suggest it during the probate process. In fact, rather than waiting for conflict to arise, it can be useful for the beneficiaries and a family mediator to develop a group’s distribution process from the beginning of the probate process. Using this approach gives the beneficiaries an opportunity to share important emotional connections that can be considered and recognized by the others when disposing of a decedent’s personal property.
- Be mindful of what items are really worth. The value of an object in an estate sale may be very different from its purchase price or insurance value. As a result, items should be appraised based on what they would sell for at an estate sale in order to ensure that assets are being distributed equally.
Don’t leave your executor with a headache and your loved ones with ill feelings toward each other. Be proactive in dealing with potential family disputes over your possessions.
If you need assistance with estate planning or elder mediation, contact me for a consultation.