I've been practicing for over 16 years in a 2nd generation estate planning law firm. I have certainly seen my fair share of family squabbles. However, I am surprised and amazed every time I see it. Why? Because it is mostly unpredictable. The families that I think would never fight sometimes do. The families that I think will end up fighting usually don't. I have had some clients proclaim to me at the time of planning their estates that their kids "will never fight" or that they are "not concerned about that at all", only to have their kids end up in a knock-down drag-out fight after their deaths. And the parents never know. Because they're dead.
I have learned that, at the time of grieving the loss of a loved one, people are just not always thinking straight. Logical and rational thought is often absent more than present. There is a lot of psychology involved. Kids, especially those who live further away, sometimes feel guilt for not having visited or helped Mom and Dad as much as they, or others, feel they should have. Sometimes frustration, guilt, and even sadness, are interpreted or manifested as anger. It's confusing. Things are said and things are misunderstood. Sometimes communication stops completely. Feelings get hurt. The next thing you know, everyone has hired a lawyer. And believe me, the more lawyers involved, the more problems you have. (I’m not sure which comes first). At these times, good people sometimes do things completely out of character that no one, least of all their parents, would have expected.
Notwithstanding, it is possible to plan in a way that will reduce the chances of family fighting. We can limit the conflicts by planning as thoroughly as possible. The fewer things left up to interpretation or discretion, the fewer things the kids will have to fight over later.
Communication is a key factor in reducing the fighting as well. Those that you put in charge of things should know who your estate planning attorney is and should seek their help and advice soon after your passing. An experienced estate planning attorney that is familiar with your family situation and knows your estate objectives should be able to help your Trustees and Executors handle things in a way that will set proper expectations for the beneficiaries and reduce the issues that could cause fighting.
Some families will fight regardless of the plan in place. But to plan your estate with no thought of your family possibly fighting, might leave too many things open ended and may result in what you do not want: a family fight.
Schultz & Associates Law Center, P.C. is an Oregon law firm with offices in Eugene, Salem, and Roseburg.