The death of a parent can often bring about rivalries between siblings. Some grudges and perceived wrongdoings from the past can feel as fresh as they did 15 years ago.
For example; In one case, 2 of 3 sisters were named co-executors of their mother’s estate that was worth millions. The third sister had distanced herself from the family years earlier because of a feud over the family business. When she discovered that she stood to inherit significantly less than her two sisters, she hired an attorney and contested every move they made.
When that didn’t work, she snuck into her mother’s house and stole a family heirloom knowing that her sisters attached great sentimental value to it. The two sisters finally got the keepsake back, but only after a long—and expensive—court battle. Still, the disgruntled sister accomplished her goal of rattling her siblings, draining money from the estate and dragging out probate.
You can’t predict exactly where an issue might erupt, but here are some common triggers that we’ve seen with family fights over inheritances, and some guidance on how to manage them.
“Mom always liked you best”
At the end of the day, no one really wants to be named executor, but deep inside, most of us would like to be asked. That’s because we equate being named executor as both a vote of confidence and also a validation of our relationship with the person who passed. Sometimes, not being asked can create resentment toward the person who was, and that resentment can manifest as a distrust of the process and constant questioning of any decisions made.
As named executor, you can minimize resentment by being sensitive to others’ feelings and encouraging collaboration.
When ‘Fair’ isn’t Always Equal
There’s sometimes a gap between what beneficiaries expect to receive and what they actually get. One of the most common things we hear is, “Mom said she wanted me to have [fill in the blank] after she died.” But, if the Will doesn’t specifically list an individual as the recipient of the item, then it becomes the property of the estate.
The executor’s job is to distribute estate proceeds according to the percentages outlined in the Will. If Mom’s Will didn’t specifically list you as the beneficiary of a family heirloom, it may be bequeathed to the oldest child listed in the Will. As a named beneficiary, they may also receive the same share of the residual estate assets all other heirs get.
Facing Your Family
It’s a universal truth. When one person is assigned to a specific task, others are assigned the role of judging that person’s performance. Unfortunately, family members with a stake in the process can be harsh critics. Questions quickly escalate into accusations if they aren’t answered, or if the other beneficiaries don’t like the answers they’re hearing.
Constant criticism puts a lot of stress and pressure on executors. So much pressure, that we sometimes find executors trapped in a holding pattern. The fear of causing conflict can often be greater than the pain of doing nothing. As a result, probate can drag on for years, prolonging everyone’s anxiety.
You can’t control fights over inheritance, or insulate yourself from potential blowback. What you can do is communicate early and often. Here are some guidelines:
Let everyone know what the rules are.
Tell family members there are going to be some decisions that require family collaboration. They’ll each have the opportunity to provide input at that time. However, there are also going to be decisions that you as executor will have to make on your own, and you’ll keep them informed of those as well.
Trust your Instincts About Your Group.
If you know from the start that family dynamics could complicate probate, consider bringing in a mediator. It doesn’t have to be an estate attorney, just someone who can remain neutral and help resolve family fights over inheritance with patience and detachment.
Don’t Allow the Process to Consume You.
Probably the most important thing you can do is to take care of yourself through this emotional process. Set aside time that you’ll focus on probate issues, and then respect those boundaries so you can keep up with the rest of your life.
At the end of the day, stuff is just stuff. Remember, the most valuable part of any inheritance is the family bond that a beloved parent leaves behind. For all your Estate Planning needs, call AmySue Taylor.