Ten Timely Tips To Avoid Family Squabbles

By Joan Reed Wilson, Esq.



In our estate planning, probate and elder law practice here at  RWC,  LLC, Attorneys and Counselors at Law, we often see family squabbles that erupt because of unmet expectations. Many of these expectations involve emotionally-valuable personal property. And many of them erupt after the passing of a loved one. In many instances, had the family discussed these expectations prior to their loved one’s passing, these squabbles (some of which end up severing family relationships for a lifetime) could have been avoided.  With the holidays upon us, we urge you to use these tips. Please feel free to share this article with your friends and family members. Everyone can benefit from these tips.

Planning to pass on belongings that have special meaning, like grandma’s yellow pie plate, can be challenging. The following tips will help you make decisions that are right for your family.

1. Recognize that decisions about personal belongings are often more challenging than decisions about titled property. Assuming such decisions are unimportant or trivial can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.     
2. Recognize that inheritance decisions can have powerful consequences – emotional as well as economic. Decisions about personal property involve dealing with emotional and potential financial value connected to objects accumulated over a lifetime and across generations of family members.
3. Plan ahead. When decisions are made prior to death, the decisions  can reflect the owner’s wishes, and special memories and stories may  be shared. Planning ahead versus waiting until a crisis or death offers more choices and a chance for thoughtful communication. 
4. Consider how to deal with conflicts before they arise. Issues of power and control do not disappear in inheritance decisions. Unresolved  conflicts among parents, adult children, siblings, and others are often  at the heart of what goes wrong with inheritance decisions. Listen for  feelings and emotions, watch for blaming, and determine if you can agree to disagree if conflicts arise. 
5.  Remember that different perceptions of what’s “fair” are normal and should be expected. Those involved need to uncover the unwritten rules and assumptions about fairness that exist among family  members.  
6. Consider all options. Being fair does not always mean being equal. In fact, dividing personal property equally is sometimes impossible.
7. Ask family members for input.  Individuals who have input and  agree on how decisions are made are more likely to feel the outcomes  of those decisions are fair.
8. Discuss what those involved want to accomplish. This will help  reduce mistaken assumptions, misunderstood intentions, and makes  choosing distribution options easier.
9.  Ask others to identify items that have special meaning to them. This will help minimize inaccurate assumptions about who should get what. Not everyone will find the same items meaningful.
10. Put wishes in writing. By creating a separate listing mentioned in a will, for example, you will reduce the dilemmas and decisions for estate executors and surviving family members.  

Excerpted with permission from the article ‘Families and Personal Property Inheritances: A Top Ten List for Decision-Making’, by Marlene S. Stum, University of Minnesota.

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