A Clash of Wills: Greed and misunderstanding can foul
up the hereafter
Seattle Post Reporter
brother is a liar, a cheat and a thief. My parents trusted
him, and he took advantage of them. This is a kid I used to
walk to school with. Who would have thought?"
-- From "The Family Fight"
you will no longer be with us. And how you prepare for that
far, far away day can shape whether your loved ones, wracked
by sobs, will still be speaking to one another after you're
the aftermath of death, most families try to behave honorably,
but lawyers who deal in wills and other end-of-life issues
have a litany of horror stories fueled by innocent mistakes
and plain old greed.
actually had people say, 'Mommy liked you best and now it's
my turn,' " said Mary Anne Vance, a Seattle attorney
who has witnessed 25 years of family fights over wills. "We've
had people cry, people get very angry with each other, lawyers
get very angry with each other."
difficult to document, but some lawyers sense that bickering
is on the rise as spendthrift baby boomers come to depend
on legacies from "the saving generation" to bail
them out of debt.
what we're seeing is some of the estates are larger, so they
can be more contentious," said Seattle attorney Doug
Lawrence. "I do think there's more litigation. Kids tend
to feel they're entitled to something. They're not entitled.
The parents don't have to leave them anything."
add that elderly parents can be traumatized by their children's
pre-inheritance squabbles, just as young children are harmed
by parental bickering.
feuds are universal. Canadian attorney Les Kotzer of Ontario
was so distressed by inheritance-fueled family breakups, he
co-wrote a self-published estate-planning guide called "The
Family Fight: Planning To Avoid It." The mail-order guide
has sold a hearty 15,000 copies, mostly in the United States,
earning a mention in the trade journal Publisher's Weekly.
who posts cautionary tales from aggrieved children on his
Web site, www.familyfight.com, said many disputes fester under
a veneer of civility.
"It's very sad to say, but you should never assume good
will between kids," Kotzer said. "Even if there
is, their spouses may not let them have good will. A lot of
people become very bitter."
feuds are hard to mend but relatively easy to prevent. Lawyers
say preparation is everything.
1 is to come up with a good estate plan that is not challengeable,"
said Seattle attorney Karl Flaccus. "That's where people
should put their focus."
tried to get my father to make a will. ... I even offered
to get one of the do-it-yourself kits from the post office.
However, he believed my sister would 'do the right thing.'
Sadly, my father passed away six months later and I found
out about it 10 days after he died. No notice was put in the
paper and no other relatives or friends were informed."
aren't just for old age. Accidents and illness can happen
anytime. For young parents, wills offer the chance to name
a guardian -- usually a friend or relative -- to raise surviving
children. Absent a will, the courts will choose.
most people put off making a will and, in many cases, die
lessen conflict, they have to get their affairs in order,"
said Seattle attorney Jon A. Clark.
intentions aren't enough. Flaccus recently had to give some
bad news to expectant "heirs" who showed up carrying
a videotaped "will" made by a woman who had since
died. "I had to say, 'That has no legal validity,' "
Flaccus said. "It has to be written and signed and witnessed."
$200,000 estate automatically went to the deceased woman's
daughter, who could have kept it all but, in a classy act,
honored her mother's wishes to distribute it among various
relatives and a close friend.
a case that took three years and $6,000 to sort out, Seattle
attorney Margaret Dore represented a woman who had helped
support her mother for many years, with an understanding she
would inherit the mother's house.
mother, however, died without a will, creating an opening
for another daughter to claim a share of the estate. Complicating
matters, yet another daughter (there were five) had died years
earlier, leaving surviving children who had to be located
so they could be given notice of the probate.
the end, Dore's client got the house. If the mother had left
a will, the attorney said, the whole matter could have been
settled in three or four months for less than $1,000.
offered to help my mother's (second) husband divide up her
things. His response was that he just couldn't deal with it
right now and would take care of it. In the meantime, he held
an estate auction and sold most of her things."
you're in a second marriage, you've got to be extremely careful
about planning," Kotzer said. "Never assume the
second spouse will take care of the children of the first
cuts both ways. Vance has had two cases in which widows who
helped raise their stepchildren were threatened with loss
of their homes because their names weren't on the deeds. In
one case the client was elderly and had a child with Down
a wicked world out there," Vance said, adding that both
widows came out OK, one through a settlement, another through
the appeals process.
without the complication of a second marriage, competition
for family heirlooms and mementos can strain good will --
sometimes more than battles over money.
Kotzer said, "It's not easy to look in your sister-in-law's
china cabinet and see something you bought your mother."
this state, people who make wills can attach a list -- to
be completed at their leisure -- indicating who gets what.
families just draw lots for keepsakes and then horse-trade.
But even this has pitfalls. In one case, a woman kept losing
to her sister when they drew straws for treasured keepsakes
from their deceased mother. Finally she realized her sister
had rigged the straws and knew which one was the winner before
making her selection.
there's the less-than-honorable "entrepreneurial"
approach, which Vance summarizes as, "Everyone's at the
funeral -- one of the relatives goes to the home and cleans
it out. I've had that reported more than once."
the moral of our story is, try your best to find out what
is in the will before they die. Open those lines of communication.
... And above all, DO NOT depend on the affection and love
of family members .... Money changes people."
urges families to discuss plans and expectations openly. Should
Susie get something extra for her years of selfless care-giving?
Should Joey be cut out of the will because of his thankless,
irresponsible behavior? Does Fred really want responsibility
for his parents' financial and medical decisions?
much of the problem is because there's no communication,"
Kotzer said. "You can either talk now or not talk later."
attorneys say openness is a fine ideal but can be harmful
when elderly parents are trying to fend off predatory children.
Lawrence suggests that parents explain their decisions, either
in person or, afterward by letter or videotape. That can smooth
over hurt feelings and prevent unfounded claims of undue influence.
Flaccus says well-intentioned explanations can backfire if
you're not careful. Say you leave a videotape explaining that
you gave less to one son because he was much better off financially
-- only it turns out he wasn't as successful as Mom thought.
Better run it by your lawyer before hitting the "record"
button. Or you could follow Dore's advice and just end your
will with a statement of love and appreciation for one and
any luck, family ties will prevail. Just this spring one of
Kotzer's clients died, leaving an envelope to be opened on
her death. As her grown children, who had become distant from
each other, filed in for the reading, Kotzer said, "they
were sort of cold and bitter. You could see the tension there."
mother," he told them by way of prelude, "was a
wonderful person. She did not want you to fight."
that, he opened the letter. Out fell snapshots of the kids
from when they were young -- playing together, fooling around
on a camping trip, buddies for life.
the estranged children cried and hugged, Kotzer read aloud
their mother's final wish.
do not want you children to be torn apart," Mom wrote.
"Remember -- I am watching you."