Sometimes death has a way of bringing out the worst in families. The death of a parent and the subsequent efforts to settle the estate can renew old rivalries among siblings. Ask those who grew up in dysfunctional families, and they’ll tell you that just because they’re older doesn’t mean that relationship problems disappear. The issues that divided that family 20 years ago likely still remain. Grudges and perceived inequities still can feel fresh. If there’s a significant amount of money to be divided among family members, things can quickly become hostile. If you’re the Probate Executor, here are some tips for defusing volatile family dynamics.
Inheritance fights are on the rise
A huge number of baby boomers have done nothing to prepare for retirement, and accumulated assets from their more frugal parents become a critical part of their retirement planning. When things go badly, people realize that they need their inheritances. A lot of people are living off the parental dole. As their parents near the end, these children grab as much as they can and are far less willing to share it with their siblings. An uneven economy, layoffs and shrunken retirement plans have hurt many.
Here are three common trigger points for family fights over inheritances:
1. Mom always liked you best
While nobody really wants to be an Executor, deep down inside we want to be asked, because we equate being named Executor as both a vote of confidence and a validation of our relationship with the person who died. It’s also an indicator of leadership and intelligence. Not being asked can create resentment toward the person who was asked. That resentment can create distrust of the process and constant questioning of the decisions that are made. If you have been named the Executor, you can minimize resentment by being sensitive to others’ feelings, staying approachable and encouraging collaboration.
2. Fair isn’t always equal
There’s often a gap between what beneficiaries expect to receive and what they actually get. One of the most common refrains is “Mom said she wanted me to have [fill in the blank] after she died.”
This becomes a slippery slope. If the Will doesn’t specify the distribution of an individual item, the item belongs to the estate. If there’s no Will, that item and everything else belongs to the estate. While some requests from family members may seem small enough, they present risks. If the Executor were to let Joanne take that one heirloom vase that wasn’t specifically bequeathed to her, everyone else will want to take something. They may decide to take one more item each. Then another. Before you know it, the estate becomes diminished.
3. Facing your judge and jury
Family members are stakeholders, and they can be harsh critics. Questions can escalate into accusations if they aren’t answered, or if the other beneficiaries don’t like the answers. Constant criticism can put tremendous pressure on Executors. Fear of conflict can be paralyzing, which is one of the reasons Probate can drag on for years.
Simple steps for keeping family members on board
An Executor may not be able to control a dysfunctional family. If you’re an Executor, what you can do is be transparent, document everything you’re doing and communicate early and often.
- Tell everyone the rules. Let family members know that there will be some collaboration. There are going to be decisions that you will have to make on your own. Just keep your siblings updated.
- Consider a Mediator. If you know that your family’s level of dysfunction could complicate Probate, consider bringing in a Mediator. A Mediator will remain neutral and work with your family to resolve disputes over inheritance. Having a third party can defuse volatile situations.
- Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself through this difficult and emotional process. Set boundaries about the time you’ll focus on Probate issues and keep up with the rest of your life. Many Executors also have demanding full-time jobs and families. It’s critical to find a balance.
California Document Preparers assists our clients with Probate. While Probate can seem overwhelming, it’s a methodical process and we assist you through each step for one fixed fee of $4,500. Schedule an appointment today by contacting us at one of our three Bay Area offices. Our dedicated team is helpful, compassionate and affordable.