When a parent dies, siblings may battle for years quarreling over their inheritance. When Governor John Kasich’s parents died at the age of 67 from a car crash in 1987, John inherited the primary control of their estate over his brother, Richard. Because Richard struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, John Sr. and Anne Kasich decided it would be best to entrust the estate to John. When John decided to sell the family home the two grew up in, Richard became furious and sued his brother John for control of his share of the inheritance despite estrangement threats from his older brother. The threats solidified, and the two brothers did not speak for almost two decades while John pursued his career in politics. The Kasich family estate dispute caused the two brothers not speaking for almost two decades.
Conflicts in estate settlements often involve fights over Mom or Dad’s possessions. Take, for example, the two sisters who fought over a $15 watch. One of the daughters had given the watch to their mother as a child, but the mother bequeathed her jewelry to the siblings “as they may decide.” The stalemate between the sisters resulted in a bidding process in which the sisters put dollar values on various assets to determine how the items would be apportioned, with one sister valuing the watch at $6,000 to keep it out of her sister’s hands.
Have a Candid Conversation
There are ways to avoid such battles and this may require more than writing a will. Parents can think about adding a “no contest clause” to their wills, which states that anyone who disputes or contests the will forfeits the share of the estate he or she will be given. However a “no contest clause” should be used with caution and if drafted too broadly could create the very litigation it was designed to prevent.
Parents should also make specific bequests to heirs after determining what is most important to each of them. This will involve a conversation before the parent’s death about what will happen after the parent’s death and parents will be able to discover what each child finds to be sentimental and then plan accordingly. Parents should communicate with their children ahead of time about what is going to happen, and why one child might get treated differently than another. This is a difficult conversation to have because it involves talking about Mom and Dad dying and it also may force the children to admit that they have no desire to hold onto their parent’s property. This conversation may avoid one sibling feeling unequally treated compared to another sibling if surprised after a parent’s death. A parent should then leave detailed instructions regarding valuables for after his or her death. If there is a significant disparity in market values in the objects that are left to different heirs, the will can provide for a compensating legacy of cash to make up for any shortfall.
Appoint a Professional or Third-Party
Parents need to explore all options when naming an Executor or Trustee. Clients initial instinct will often be appoint one of their children to serve as executor of their estate. While this child may be the reasonable and responsible choice, this has the potential to create conflict among that child and their siblings. A parent must also carefully consider how their other children will react to not being named as executor and how naming one child to serve in a position of power over the others could harm the siblings relationship. Naming multiple children as co-Executors or co-Trustees is rarely the best choice to avoiding conflict and can significantly increase costs of administration.
Parents should also consider appointing a professional as their executor or trustee, such as an accountant, attorney, or corporate trustee. Parents should realize that rivalries exist within the family and that an independent bank or independent individual will often help avoid intense competition. Costs come into play here because executor fees vary by state and by corporate fee schedule. A disinterested family member could also be a reasonable choice to consider in the right situation.
Every family has its own unique challenges and there is not a one size fits all solution. However, discussing these issues openly with your children and with your estate planning attorney when preparing your documents can help avoid sibling discord after your death.
I have not met a client whose testamentary intent was to create conflict among his or her children. However, this is becoming the norm in estate administration.