Estate Planning: Communication Can Help Prevent Disputes

Estate Planning: Communication Can Help Prevent Disputes

Barry E. Haimo, Esq.

April 16, 2015

It can be difficult to talk to your family and loved ones about your plans for after death, but neglecting to have this discussion can cause many more difficulties in the long run.

Too often, we’ve seen loving families torn apart by disagreements over inheritance. The death of a loved one is a traumatic and stressful ordeal, often reviving dormant feelings of resentment, jealousy, and dissatisfaction with relationships.

If the terms of your will come as a surprise to your beneficiaries, it can cause confusion, animosity, and legal conflicts. This is something that Annie Grayson didn’t anticipate when making her estate plan—an error in judgement that ended up bringing unnecessary hardship to her otherwise stable and happy family.

An Unpleasantly Surprising Estate Plan

Most residents in Pembroke Pines would agree that the Graysons were a happy family—the kind of family you’d want at your Fourth of July barbeque or planning your neighborhood block party. The entire Grayson family regularly attended church and volunteered at the local soup kitchen every month, and the Grayson children were the stars of their school’s theater productions before graduating and going on to college in Boston.

John Grayson passed away not long after the last of the three Grayson children left for college, leaving his aging wife, Annie, alone in the lofty Grayson family home.

Annie was thrilled when her youngest son, Tim, returned to Pembroke Pines to take an upper management position at his father’s real estate company. Tim visited his mother several times a week, and continued to do so after he married and had children of his own. As Annie’s eyesight began to fail, she came to rely on Tim for help around the house, grocery shopping, and gardening.

Annie’s other two children—Michelle and Nicky—visited whenever they could, but were both fairly busy with careers in Boston. That’s why Annie decided to leave the Grayson family home to Tim. After all, he had provided her with invaluable help and company in her old age, he lived and worked in the area, and had a family to support.

Annie would be proud to have her grandchildren raised in the Grayson family home. Michelle and Nicky were both single with lucrative careers, and had left Florida long ago—surely they wouldn’t be interested in property in Pembroke Pines.

Annie was certain her children would understand her decision, and never bothered to sit down with all of them to discuss it. It wasn’t until Annie passed away at the age of 73 that the Grayson children first learned of her estate plan.

When the terms of their mother’s will were revealed, Michelle and Nicky were surprised and hurt to learn their mother had left their childhood home to Tim. They had grown up in that house, and had invested a lot of their own money helping their mother renovate it.

Though Michelle and Nicky reluctantly accepted that the house would go to Tim, they wondered if their little brother had influenced or coerced their aging, vulnerable mother into leaving him the house. They never quite recovered from the hurt of the experience, and continued to have cold and distant relationship with their once-adored little brother and his family for years after.

Communication is Key to Avoiding Confusion, Conflict, and Legal Battles

Had Annie Grayson taken the time to explain her reasons to her family for leaving the family home to Tim, she may have been able to avoid hurting and confusing her other children. While Annie’s reasons were clear to her, Michelle and Nicky interpreted her actions as an unkind and suspicious act of favoritism.

When planning your estate, it’s important to communicate your intentions to your beneficiaries.  There are a variety of useful communication strategies you can use to prevent conflict and chaos after your death, including:

Being as detailed as possible in your will. Ambiguity in wills leads to confusion. If a will is well-written and well-thought-out, you can avoid causing arguments among your beneficiaries as they try to interpret and carry out your wishes. Be as specific as possible about your intentions in your will, and include instructions on how each of your assets should be distributed, and who should distribute them.

Creating a trust to avoid probate. Probate is a costly, stressful, and time-consuming process. Consider creating a trust in addition to a will, which allows your assets to avoid probate and quickly and easily pass to your beneficiaries, sparing them the hassle and expense of probate court proceedings.

Discussing your estate plan with your family. As difficult as it is to talk about your plans after death, it’s important for you to discuss your intentions and explain the rationale behind your estate planning decisions.

Leaving a video. If a picture is worth a thousand words, consider how many a video leaves behind. A video is a wonderful tool to include in your estate plan, giving you a final chance to speak and explain your decisions to your surviving family. A video can also demonstrate that you weren’t being manipulated when you wrote your will, reducing the likelihood that it will be contested.  It’s also a great opportunity to convey your sentimental thoughts and feelings to your family, which they will preserve and cherish forever.

Working with an attorney. A seasoned estate planning attorney can help you ensure your will, trust, and other estate planning documents are solid, clear, and well-written, and act as an expert mediator through the often difficult and sensitive process of discussing your after-death plans with your family.

Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Haimo Law