When people create an estate plan, they usually have interlocking goals in mind. They want to ensure that their property is passed down as they intend while avoiding probate and minimizing any tax impact, so the maximum benefit can go to their chosen heirs as quickly as possible. But having a will and a trust in place does not necessarily prevent the nightmare of family conflict and protracted, expensive court battles over a decedent’s estate. Certain scenarios make it more likely that adult children will fight over the provisions of their parent’s estate plan, even when it seems like the decedent’s wishes were clearly spelled out. Anybody has the right to distribute their property however they see fit, and they’re not required to justify their reasoning or inform their heirs in advance. However, when an estate plan distributes assets unequally between adult children, and those plans have been kept secret from the family, trouble may ensue.
An important thing to realize is that conflict over a parent’s estate is frequently driven by emotion rather than logic. Court battles over a potential inheritance can be long and costly. Lawyers and experts may be brought in to propose and support theories to overcome the wording of the existing estate plan. These costs eat up estate assets and ultimately harm everyone involved. While this may seem self-evident, an heir who feels they’ve been unfairly treated won’t necessarily stop to think that litigation may be more destructive than helpful. They may retain a lawyer to assert what they see as their rights. Their siblings may hire lawyers to defend their position, and the situation escalates.
While the financial havoc is terrible, the emotional toll these battles have on a family is worse. No matter how the case is ultimately decided, years of fighting against one another in court destroys relationships. Animosity between siblings can trickle down to their children as well, and it’s not unusual for relatives on either side of a bitter inheritance dispute to cut off any communication with each other for the rest of their lives. No parent wants to leave behind that kind of legacy.
What can parents do to minimize the chances of a fight over their estate? Preventative steps that address the most likely source of conflict and common legal grounds for challenging an estate plan can help keep your family out of court.
If you or someone you love wants to change a long-standing estate plan to a new arrangement to one that favors one or more heirs over the others, you should take steps to ensure that they have the testamentary capacity to make that alteration—that is, that they understand the consequences of the change. At a minimum, this should involve seeing their doctor for an evaluation. Written records that state an elderly family member is not cognitively impaired in a way that interferes with their testamentary capacity can help head off the argument that a decedent was too senile or mentally ill at the time they created or amended their estate plan to know what they were doing.
Another common reason for challenging an estate plan is undue influence. Unequal gifts can lead to the suspicion that the person benefiting pushed their parent into giving them more than their fair share of the estate. An independent legal evaluation at the time an estate plan is amended, in which a lawyer interviews and assesses the elder, counsels them as to the consequences of the proposed changes, and then provides their conclusions in writing, can help guard against allegations of fraud or undue influence.
By far, however, transparency about estate planning before the decedent has passed on is the best opportunity to avert inheritance disputes. In cases where there is already family tension, a parent wants to gift their estate unequally, or both, a family mediation facilitated by a professional mediator can be a useful forum for productive discussion. It allows the gift giver to explain their reasoning, and potential heirs to air their feelings, all for a much lower expense than protracted litigation. It also eliminates the shock and anger that can drive a rush to fight it out in court when plans are kept secret from those they will impact.
At Velasco Law Group, we have deep experience on both sides of estate planning—the good a well-crafted, intentional estate plan can do for a family, and the damage that can result from inheritance disputes. We can help you design your estate plan to ensure your assets are passed on as you wish and to lower the chances of avoidable family conflict. Our experienced attorneys offer legal services in both English and Spanish to serve the Southern California community. To find out more about our estate planning services or to schedule a free initial consultation, contact us here.
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