At the end of your life, your children will come closer together as friends, in unity and harmony, respecting you and the legacy you’ve left them -- or they will escalate an ongoing “family feud” or start a new one.
Sometimes it is fueled by the children who were always at the mercy of the “dominant” child who seemed to always have his hands in mom’s and dad’s business and, sure enough, he’s the trustee of the Trust and executor of the Will. It may start slowly with silent questions and suspicions, even undetected, and then follow with accusations, finger pointing, lawyers, and lawsuits. It may even include your children’s spouses and your grandchildren.
“That will never happen in our family.” You may be right.
There are warning signs. If heeded, precautions and protections can be implemented. Parents who utilize time-tested safeguards minimize (and frequently eliminate) the risks of a family feud. That’s what I’ve learned in my 30 years in the legal profession.
This isn’t accomplished with do-it-yourself forms downloaded from the Internet or copied from other sources. Think about it. The fineprint in those Internet forms warn you to not rely on them without first reviewing them with a competent attorney. You “click” on a button that you agree to the website’s terms and conditions – and that includes your agreement that you waive all claims against the website if anything goes wrong.
Because “one shoe doesn’t fit all”, the do-it-yourself forms will likely increase future problems – not minimize them.
There are good and bad Wills and Trusts. Your challenge is finding what’s best for you and those you care about most. The results will surface when you die. You’ll have left your family with a solid, air-tight Will or Trust, or with a mess or even a lawsuit.
Even Wills or Trusts provided by well-meaning general-practice attorneys have failed tens of thousands of American families. It’s fairly easy to create a Will or Trust. The hard part is in creating effective ones. That’s why probate litigation is such a thriving business. “One size fits all” Wills and Trusts probably don’t deal with the dynamics in your family that foster family harmony – or disharmony. I just finished a case where two brothers sued their other brother to “bust Dad’s trust.” It was prepare by a well-meaning lawyer, but he could have been more diligent in getting his client (the Dad) to be more specific concerning his intentions and why he was leaving a greater share of his assets to one son than to the other two. The trust had some ambiguities in it, and the two brothers used them to their advantage. It took over a year of court filings and mediation, but they finally settled the case – but the third brother will never speak to his two siblings again. In fact, he’s sold his house and moved to another state just to avoid his brothers, and he’s left no forwarding information where they can find him.
I recently reviewed a so-called “simple” Will. Someone’s “friend who’s an attorney” had written it – for no charge. Right away I could tell that its author hadn’t been careful. It identified an adult brother who had died prematurely, then this: “No other relatives are to receive any of my assets when I die.” There were two obvious interpretations. Did it imply that the children of the deceased brother should inherit assets, or did it mean that because the brother was deceased, no relatives should inherit anything? The interpretation of those three words could result in years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars of attorney’s fees. Many lawsuits have been fought over whether a few words meant one thing or another. When it comes to Wills and Trusts, “the devil’s in the details.”
Attorneys with extensive experience in Wills and Trusts know what words to use and how to piece them together so they won’t result in double meanings or interpretations. They use words where the meaning is clear to everyone – family, lawyers, and judges. When it’s clear, then there is nothing to argue about – everything is, as some people say, “cut and dried.”
That’s where you find the value of an attorney with numerous years spent crafting hundreds of Wills and Trusts. Even then, do you feel, and do you believe, that the attorney will apply his or her skill to crafting a Will or Trust designed for your specific situation – and not just a “one size fits all” form that can easily be “sold” to you for a few hundred dollars? The attorney has to have the courage to tell you that “there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this, and the right way is going to cost more money than the simple fill-out-a form way.”
In short, you need to invest time and money that will decrease the odds of a “Family Feud” and that will be a reflection of your commitment to leaving your family, and others, with a caring, thoughtful, and thorough set of instructions that will enable them to move on in life, without you, with as few problems as possible.