Adult siblings gather round a conference table in a lawyer's office, arguing bitterly over an inheritance. "We never thought this would happen to our family," one comments. It's a scene that Michigan estate attorney P. Mark Accettura has witnessed repeatedly. He has seen so many families ripped apart by feuds over a will that he wrote a book, Blood & Money, on how to avoid them.
While money may appear to be the cause of family fights, it's usually about much more than that, Accettura says. "Money is how we keep score of who's important in the fight for the intangibles of love, approval and primordial survival."
Most parents find it very difficult to talk about money matters, but it's important to start a conversation, says Lori Sackler, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in New Jersey and author of The M Word, a guide to family financial matters. She says there are three occasions when it's most necessary: at retirement, during health care planning and during estate planning.
To prevent inheritance battles, Sackler and Accettura offer the following advice:
- Draw up an estate plan, and tell your children the basics. Call a family meeting to discuss any plans that might impact adult children, such as money allotted for grandchildren's education. It's time to set children straight. "Sometimes they have a grandiose vision of an inheritance," Sackler says. But there's no need to go into detail. "Estate planning is not a democratic process. You don't need children buying into it, and you don't want to open a can of worms while you're alive," Accettura says.
- Divide the estate equally. Resist the temptation to give more to the most needy among your children; it often leaves the more successful kids feeling penalized and causes resentment among siblings, Sackler says. "The will that provides equal distribution is the will that probably provides the least conflict," she adds. Accettura also is adamant that an estate should be divided equally. "Even getting a dollar less than another sibling can be a psychological blow," he says.
- Name an executor. Try to have some reason for choosing one child over another. Perhaps it's the oldest child (unless he or she lives too far away) or another child with specific legal or financial skills. Also think about including a fee for the executor. "Handling an estate can be a lot of work, and if the executor is going to charge a fee, he probably deserves it," Sackler says. Accettura suggests that parents include everyone in some capacity in the will. "Get people's names on the pages either as executor or helping in another way."
- Specify gifts and loans. If parents have given adult children money, they should make it clear in the will whether it's a gift or a loan. If a loan, is it to be forgiven or repaid to the estate? When parents aren't clear, it can cause conflict, Sackler says.
- Make a plan for family jewels. Even is it's not expensive, Grandma's engagement ring can cause fights because of the sentimental value attached. "Have a family conversation, and come up with a plan for people choosing and getting on board with the selection process," Sackler says.
Bottom line: Proper planning can go a long way to keeping peace.
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.com