The Family War - Winning The Inheritance Battle

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The Family War In The Media

Regina Leader-Post

Avoid The Nasty Inheritance Fight

Irene Seiberling, The Leader-Post

A family war over a parent's estate can get nasty. Very nasty! It's like a divorce between siblings.

We've all heard horror stories about families being torn apart by an inheritance battle -- brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters waging war on one another.

And when the dust settles, the "winner" may have won the family war, but lost part of his or her family in the process.

Picture your own family tree, with each branch connected to another, sharing a common trunk. After a family war over an inheritance, one or more of the branches are cut off, and they may never grow back, explain the authors of The Family War: Winning the Inheritance Battle, a new book that highlights what you need to know about estate disputes.

Disputes over estates develop into some of the most emotionally charged cases lawyers see.

As wills and estates lawyers, authors Les Kotzer, Barry Fish and Jordan Atin often see families fighting.

"Money and death can do strange things to families, " Kotzer said in a phone interview from his Toronto law office.

"Death and money form a combustible combination," the authors point out in their 224-page, straight-forward, easy-to-read paperback.

"We have seen our share of tragic family inheritance battles," Kotzer said. "Sometimes it's over a home, business or cottage. Other times, it's over Mom's personal possessions or Dad's baseball card or coin collection."

Most of us assume that this sort of thing could never happen to us, he said. But, as lawyers, Kotzer and his co-authors know otherwise.

"It really can happen in your family," they emphasize in their book.

That's why they wrote The Family War -- "to provide you with enough information so that you have a feel for what it's like to be engulfed in a family war." And hopefully, Kotzer said, knowing what you could face -- and at what cost -- will inspire you and your family to work things out before things get to the see-you-in-court stage. The book recognizes the importance of resolving a family war as early as possible to minimize its emotional and financial costs for you and your family.

Does your parent, aunt or uncle want to leave a legacy of a family war when he or she dies? Of course not, Kotzer pointed out.

But sadly, inheritance battles are occurring with increasing frequency, he said.

"We believe that as more and more boomers (many of them spenders who have lots of debt) inherit from their depression-era parents (many of them savers), there will be many more families at war," Kotzer predicted.

The Family War is not an estate-planning book, he was quick to point out. But rather, "it is focused on unlocking the mystery of estate disputes."

The book discusses everything from the warning signs that a family war might be looming in your family to providing strategies to protect yourself if you are an executor (doing it right and avoiding trouble). As well, it provides an overview of the estate litigation process, plus strategies to prevent estate litigation, including before death strategies (what parents can do) and after death strategies (what children can do).

The book points out that although estate fights are commonly perceived to be just about money, there is almost always more to a family war than just the money.

"Many estate disputes are sewn by the seeds of jealousy, greed, thirst for control, bitterness, hatred, and hurt feelings resulting from real or perceived preferential treatment by a parent," the book explains. "Such feelings can erupt over being deprived of personal possessions or a share in the money that was promised by a deceased parent."

How a will is worded can pit family members against each other, as well.

"For many children, a parent's will is interpreted as reflecting something deeper about their lifelong relationship. Those words in black and white are an expression of a parent's confidence or distrust, pride or disappointment in the child. A large gift, or a smaller one, is seen as a reward or a reprimand," the book explains.

And the fighting isn't always over the entire will, Kotzer pointed out. Sometimes, it's just a word or phrase being challenged, such as the interpretation of "antiques" or "memorabilia" or "personal belongings".

Beneficiaries can agree to change Mom or Dad's will, Kotzer said. But the executor can't make changes, he pointed out, adding that beneficiaries can sue the executor if he or she hasn't carried out his or her administration properly.

Kotzer also emphasized the importance of being guarded. Choose your words carefully, he recommended, or they may come back to haunt you. For example, when writing the obituary or eulogy for your father's funeral, think twice about your choice of heartfelt words of appreciation for Dad's live-in housekeeper. If you praise her for being more than just a housekeeper to Dad, your kind words could be used against you by the housekeeper's lawyer to claim a share of Dad's estate.

The eulogy or obituary may not automatically win the case for the housekeeper, Kotzer explained, but it could be a valuable piece of evidence.

Also, be aware that what happens at the funeral is often included as evidence in an estate battle. "Watch what you say and don't make threats," Kotzer cautioned, explaining that a harsh word spoken or a confrontation at the funeral could end in an affidavit filed in court. He added that a family member's absence at the funeral may be used to indicate a lack of love or a sign of disrespect for the deceased.

"There's a lot to consider," Kotzer said matter-of-factly. But if you're armed with the insight and strategies provided in The Family War if you are involved in an inheritance battle, you'll know what you can do to minimize it turning into a family war.

The Family War isn't available in bookstores. It can be ordered online at www.thefamilywar.com or by calling 1-877-439-3999. The book costs $28.95, plus tax and shipping.

The Family War Web site also provides free referrals to estate lawyers in your area, if you don't know where to turn, Kotzer pointed out.

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