Your heirs may not see eye to eye on family circumstances, particularly regarding inheriting your estate. Relationships can change and intensify when you die. Underlying issues can bubble to the surface, creating tensions over your estate and possibly tearing your family apart.
Even if your children get along well, the distribution of your assets can require conflict resolution skills. Without previously experiencing any significant conflicts, even close siblings can struggle to maintain happy family relationships when settling your estate.
Is Equitable Distribution Always Appropriate?
When you are making decisions about how to leave your property to your children, the clearest choice is often to divide everything into equal shares. This may prove pretty straightforward when all your children are doing equally well.
However, what if your son is a starving artist with mouths to feed and your childless daughter has made millions on Wall Street? At first glance, you may feel it makes sense to leave more to him than her. However, that decision can have unintended negative consequences; for one, your daughter is more than likely to feel hurt.
Favoring one child over another often only fans the flames of sibling rivalry. You don’t want to leave behind an environment full of disappointment or resentment.
Estate Planning Considers the Long Term
Even if your daughter has no children of her own now, she may have them in the future. If you leave her nothing, both she and her children will have nothing to keep your memory alive. Suppose your son’s career takes off, he marries, and has additional children later?
These days, anyone’s family or financial situation can take a sudden turn. Consider the following:
- Illness, injury, or natural disaster can strike, causing financial misfortune
- Marriage often doubles income and property, but divorce tears assets apart
- Investment decisions might be successful or fail
- Assets can grow – or diminish entirely
- The economy causes credit to dry up, or makes cash plentiful, but rarely aligns with your needs
Hopefully, gloomy misfortunes won’t befall your daughter, but you can still provide her with some financial cushion. If your son’s career takes off, he may not need the extra financial support you were willing to give.
Estate Plans Can Change
When you begin shaping your estate plan, you may consider a strategy that focuses on splitting up your assets equally. Then, as time passes and your children’s lives evolve, you can revisit your will or trust to make adjustments as often as you like.
There may even be a way to address specific financial scenarios and concerns in your estate planning documents that would trigger leaving more to one child than another, but only should something particular or unexpected happen. Your estate planning attorney can discuss different situations and how you might prepare for them.
Discussing Your Wishes Openly
The easiest way to avoid a fight is to speak to your children directly. Manage their expectations about your estate plan and listen to their input. Unless you ask, you cannot know for sure what they might want to hold onto once you're gone. These family discussions need to include all heirs, because if one heir gets a say about what they inherit, so should all.
If you still want to leave your son more than your daughter, sit down with both of your children and explain why you’re making this decision. Even if your daughter might be unhappy to hear it, at least she would have less reason to blame your son later.
You never know; people in your daughter’s position may freely agree. Love and bigheartedness on the more-advantaged child’s part can result in everybody walking away happy.
Yet these conversations can be difficult because an equal division is not always possible depending on the asset. In addition, heirs who are more well-off may want more sentimental items or family collections rather than cash, as it might change their tax bracket. In contrast, the less well-off heirs can genuinely benefit from additional monies.
Work With Your Estate Planning Attorney
Consult with your attorney to ensure you are tailoring your legacy plan to meet your needs. You want your plan to be unique to your circumstances and family dynamics. That’s why it’s important to avoid online legal forms created as basic templates. Talk to your attorney to customize documents that actually suit your wishes and goals.
In the end, you may be planning for unequal distributions of your estate and don’t wish to discuss this with your heirs. If this is the case, consider including detailed language in your estate plan regarding how you came to your decisions. This can help your heirs better understand your goals and minimize potential conflict among them. Your estate planner can also communicate with your family about why being fair is not always the same as being equal.
Even if your family is not prone to conflict, managing heirs’ expectations and putting together a sound, routinely reviewed estate plan can prevent a bitter legal battle that can tear your family apart.
Professional advice helps you think through issues and possibilities you may never have considered. Estate planning attorneys also can prepare you for challenges that may not have happened yet. With their guidance, you can minimize disputes, confusion, frustration, and grief during emergencies and after you pass.