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How To Make Sure Your Kids Don’t Fight Over Your Estate

Tips for making sure your legacy is preserved peacefully among your heirs.

If you think your children won't fight over your estate, you're either very lucky or very deluded. (Sadly, it’s probably the latter.) When emotions are at their height, grief kicks in, and money and property are up for grabs, even the most rational people can get caught up in the moment and do regrettable things. Add in the possibility of existing family rifts — sibling rivalries, blended families that never quite meshed as you hoped, a second or third spouse — and everything you worked for your entire life can end up buying an estate attorney a new beach house.

Here are the things you need to do to make sure:

  • Your estate is locked down
  • You properly address each person to either be granted an inheritance or be disinherited
  • Everything is completely legal and ironclad in case someone dares contest it

With a little savvy estate planning, you can rest assured your prized possessions and assets will be divided according to your best wishes.

Primary Problem: You leave your estate to your kids without specific details and directions.

Do you think it’s best for your kids to figure out how to divide up your assets on their own? Say you have a home, boat, collection of antiques, and you’re not sure who wants what so you state that you leave “all these assets to your children.” While this can seem like a quick, easy decision, the lack of specifics will lead to a lot of confusion and infighting. Fighting over inheritance is an issue as old as time, but at least now it’s done in court and not in hand-to-hand combat (though court can be pretty, pretty horrible). Not every family is blessed with siblings that are besties, don’t make things any harder than they need to be.

Solution 1: Communicate openly with your adult children

Everyone’s comfort level is different with this subject because it’s painful and unpleasant to think about, especially if you’ve never talked about it before. However, if the subject is loosely discussed early on, you’ll get a chance to see how your children are feeling and you’ll get a chance to tell them what you’re thinking. A small aside, my grandmother as an immigrant never amassed much material wealth, but many times during her life mentioned her desire to have me pour her favorite libation, rum, on her grave. Perhaps a Latvian tradition, I remembered this very well, and in fact have done this when visiting her gravestone. Consider starting the conversation with your children in person while you’re still alive and well. Through conversation you’ll get a better grasp of how they feel and which possessions are most important to them.

Solution 2: Create a Will

Creating a Will should be a no-brainer if you have any assets at all. If you think you don’t have enough to warrant the time and expense, stop selling yourself short. Everyone has something and this ensures your assets are distributed according to your wishes, while also helping to prevent legal and emotional battles. Plus, Wills aren’t nearly as complicated or expensive as you might think. Online legal services like Nolo’s WillMaker and LegalZoom are easy to use and affordable, and a service like Freewill is just that… free. You’ll make important decisions like picking a guardian if you have younger children and deciding who gets what. You’ll also need to select an executor, who’ll have the important job of managing any debts as well as distributing the inheritance.

Solution 3: Set up a Trust

Establishing a Trust is another tool to transfer assets to your heirs. Trusts will also help minimize estate taxes, speed up the process of distribution, and avoid probate (the legal process which requires a Will to be deemed valid). A Trust can be set up for a specific person and specific reason, which gives you more control over how the money eventually will be spent. Testamentary Trusts are funded with assets from your estate and can be managed and distributed according to the terms you establish when setting it up. To do this we suggest contacting an estate attorney or financial professional since they can be complicated to create and manage, but the benefits for your heirs make it well worth the effort.

Solution 4: Select a non-sibling as executor or trustee

An executor will carry out the wishes of your estate as well as manage financial responsibilities, which is a similar job to the trustee who’s responsible for managing, investing, and eventually distributing the assets in the Trust. If you know that selecting one of your adult children as executor or trustee will cause problems it’s possible to select another family member, friend, a professional (accountants or attorneys for example), or a professional service company such as a bank or Trust company.

The upside to having a Will, a Trust, or both is to avoid shenanigans. If someone tries to change the terms or pilfer assets, that person can be brought up on charges.

Solution 5: Write letters to your children detailing your wishes

It’s a nice idea to include a letter to your children to help detail your wishes for how your estate is handled. Not only can you be incredibly specific, but you can also include personal stories to help illuminate why certain items are sentimental, or to retell the history of family heirlooms. The letters are often referred to as a Letter of Last Instructions and can be stored with your Will and handed out when the Will is shared. While these Letters aren’t legal they are exceptional at providing context.

Solution 5: Give more gifts during your lifetime

While this solution may not solve all of your inheritance issues, if you’re lucky enough to be flush with cash you won’t need to spend on living arrangements or medical expenses, this is a fantastic option. Just because your children are adults doesn’t mean they wouldn’t really appreciate the gift. A great bonus to this idea is you get to be alive and watch them enjoy the cash, or use it toward something they really need, such as paying off a house, student loans, or providing tuition for grandchildren. Pay attention to tax laws as cash gift limits change per year; in 2022 you can give up to $16,000 as a one-time tax free gift – though we suggest consulting a financial professional before writing any checks.

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