Far too many families end up fighting, or at least experiencing tension, over a family inheritance, but it does not have to be that way. Having counseled families for years, we offer the following advice to help your family avoid fighting over your property — while you are here and after you die.
Be Open and Communicate With Family Members and Loved Ones
Hold a family meeting to discuss your final affairs and wishes. You do not necessarily need to discuss what and how much each person will be receiving; that is always subject to change. You can, however, explain how you are dividing the property.
If one person is getting a larger share than another, explain your reasons. Some may not agree with your rationale, but at least they will know why you made that decision. This discussion can go a long way toward avoiding future litigation between siblings.
Write a Legacy Letter and Share It With Loved Ones
If you decide against a family meeting, another option is to write a letter carefully explaining your goals and wishes as they relate to your estate plan. You can simply express your intentions in your own words without worrying about precise legal language in the letter. These letters are sometimes called a legacy letter.
Keep in mind, this type of letter is not legally binding. However, it can be a practical way to keep family informed about your intentions and express your love and appreciation for family members and friends.
Settle on a Method for Personal Property Distribution
Many families find it helpful to discuss how they intend division of their personal property well ahead of a parent's passing. Though many estate plans rely on a personal property memorandum, it is not uncommon to discover a blank or unsigned memorandum. When this happens, most wills will give the executor discretion to distribute the property equally to the beneficiaries. Doing so is a difficult task for the executor. It can be time-consuming and expensive if the executor is required to hire an appraiser to value each item to distribute every item equally.
Some families prefer to use a different method to divide their property. For example, some families choose to allow each beneficiary to select from a list of items in a rotating fashion. Alternatively, the family might have an auction where family members can bid for items. There are endless possibilities, and discussing the merits of the different options with family members ahead of time can eliminate disputes after your passing.
Give Yourself a Legal Check-Up and Review Your Estate Documents Regularly
Preparation is vital for helping you understand your documents and their impact on you and your family. Keep in mind that any significant life change may impact your estate plan. Review your documents with your attorney regularly to determine the need to update or revise them.
Pay Close Attention To How You Title Your Assets
A beautifully designed estate plan can fall apart if your assets are improperly titled. Be careful about jointly titling cash accounts and real estate. People often do this for the sake of convenience, but doing so can have some serious legal consequences.
Aging parents often add a child to a bank account so that they can help pay bills. However, upon their passing, the bank account's entire value will pass to the child rather than under the terms of the parent's will or trust.
Check Beneficiary Designations
You should carefully examine beneficiary designations on life insurance and retirement accounts such as IRA and 401k accounts. This careful examination can ensure that they accord with your estate plan.
In some cases, parents name a child or second spouse as the primary beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. People do this under the assumption that the will or trust will divide the benefits according to the deceased's wishes. That is not the case. Failing to update beneficiary designations properly can lead to surprising and often contentious results.
Spend More Time Together as a Family
Consider spending money to bring your loved ones together while you are still here. Many families have found that regularly funding a family vacation can strengthen relationships. When good relationships exist, there is a much smaller chance of contention between family members who value those relationships.
You have spent a lifetime acquiring property. The last thing you want is for that property to cause anger, resentment, or frustration among your loved ones. By following even one or two of these suggestions, you can make a huge difference in your legacy. A little effort now can pay big dividends when you are gone. Give us a call to schedule a time to speak with our attorneys.