We often think of protecting our assets from loss due to heavy taxes, liability suits and even divorce. One of the most likely threats, often overlooked, is sibling rivalry.
Many parents expect sibling rivalry to fade away like other phases of childhood, to be replaced by family love and harmony. That does happen in many cases, but it frequently stays firmly in place. When it comes to estate settlements, sibling rivalry can create serious problems.
Should one or more of the heirs choose to challenge a will, the cost of litigation can be very high. The damage to relationships can be drastic and sometimes last through generations.
Fortunately, there is much you can do to assure a positive outcome for your own estate plans. Plans that are carefully crafted prevent many problems whether your children are rivals or best friends.
The first step is to avoid surprises. Keep in mind that estate settlement issues arise when people are experiencing grief and trying to cope with loss. When emotions are high, we are less likely to be logical or even cooperative. If one sibling is disappointed, it will not matter if their expectation was reasonable or not. It will only matter that they are dealing with another experience of loss at a very difficult time.
With regard to sentimental items, start by letting your children tell you what is important to them. Parents are often surprised to learn the value of “that old thing” to one of their children. If more than one child wants the same item, you may have to get very creative about choosing or let them assist with finding a fair way to determine who will inherit the item.
If one sibling selects something of much greater monetary value, you may decide to alter your estate plan to give the others more money or more items to create a more equal distribution.
There may be reasons for unequal distribution of assets and those reasons should be made clear ahead of time. For example, you may have already given or loaned money to one sibling and not the other. Be sure to account for this and explain whether you are adjusting the distribution accordingly or not.
In other situations, one sibling may spend time and effort caring for elderly or disabled parents, while another does not. The “caregiver” sibling may even have control of the parents’ money and/or medical decisions. Each of the siblings is sure to have an opinion about what is fair. You may be wise to prepare for such a possibility. An experienced estate planning lawyer can help you create the appropriate documents that will be fair and protect the interests of both the caregiver and other siblings.
Conflict between siblings is not always about money or sentimental things. It is also likely to be about who’s in charge of things. Some people choose one child as executor. While that child may obviously have more of the necessary skills for the task, it may cause discord between the siblings. Making two or more siblings co-executors is not helpful if they don’t agree on how things should be handled.
The same thing is true for choosing who will plan the funeral. Siblings often differ in matters of spending, and even in their perceptions of what their parent would want for their memorial. One may want something small and intimate, while another cannot imagine not including all their parent’s friends. One may judge how loved their mother was by counting the flower arrangements sent. Another may be sure their mother would prefer donations made in her memory to her favorite charity. Such differences may seem petty, but they can seem important in the midst of grief. Making prior arrangements for your memorial and burial assures your children that you wishes are being respected. Important decisions don’t have to be debated and your children will be free to experience grief and healing in their own way.
You love your children and you hope you can count on them to love each other and treat each other with kindness and generosity. Wise planning can make it easier for them to do as you wish. The estate planning lawyers at Leigh Hilton P.L.L.C. take care to create plans that have the best chance of turning out well. We are trained to anticipate and prevent problems between heirs. We will also help communicate your wishes to your families so that issues can be identified and resolved. We cannot offer a cure for sibling rivalry, but we can deal with it effectively, thereby ensuring that your estate can be settled as smoothly and peacefully as you wish it to be.