“Whether you go back to Cain and Abel, or only as far back as the Smothers Brothers (‘Mom always liked you best’), sibling rivalry is the chief factor in many disputes arising after a parent dies,” attorney Karen Gerstner writes in Law Trends & News. Many people attribute litigation to greed, but in the case of family situations, Gerstner observes, often much more is involved. Deep-seated resentments may be based on perceived unfair treatment by a parent or sibling, often going back many years, and the last living parent may have been the only “glue” holding the children in the family together.
Contested matters handled by probate courts include disputes over:
- validity of a will
- guardianship contests (should a guardian need to be appointed for an individual who allegedly has lost the mental capacity to make decisions)
- breach of fiduciary duty against an executor, trustee, or guardian
“When a parent dies, siblings may battle for years over their inheritance,” begins a Wall Street Journal piece, which cites the example of Al Hendrix (father of guitarist Jimi Hendrix), who left Jimi’s inheritance under the sole control of one of his siblings..
At Rebecca W. Geyer & Associates, we know that sibling rivalry does not end when parents die, and when one heir challenges a will or trust, the costs of litigation can be high, not only in legal fees but in damage to family harmony.
In the aftermath of a death, emotions tend to be particularly volatile, so the fewer surprises, the better. If assets – or control over assets – are to be unevenly distributed among children, those intentions are best discussed with the children ahead of time. As estate planning attorneys in Indiana, our goal is to help parents identify possible issues and, to the extent possible, create a plan that will be unlikely to further aggravate a touchy family situation. Sometimes that involves helping parents write personal letters explaining the thinking that went into the estate plan.
“Many things can exacerbate the already trying process of settling a parent’s estate and distributing the inheritance,” observe the authors of the Smart Planner Blog, including:
- differing perceptions of what each sibling has “earned”, say by taking care of an aging parent
- economic disparity between siblings
- how step-siblings and new spouses fit into the picture
- the perception that one sibling may have exerted undue influence over the parent(s) for personal gain
Good planning, but even more important, good, open family discussions can help avoid having estate settlement become a battleground for the settlement of old resentments.
– by Ronnie of the Rebecca W. Geyer & Associates blog team