Death and money de­tails

Will may not be enough to avoid a fam­ily divide

Orlando Sentinel - - EXTRA FAMILY & LIFE - By Danielle Braff Danielle Braff is a free­lance writer.

“Money can be a sen­si­tive topic. When you add the com­pli­ca­tions of fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, it’s easy for is­sues to arise.”

— Aliyyah Camp, pub­lisher at the fi­nan­cial com­par­i­son site Fin­der

Be­fore Mara Mark­zon’s grand­mother died, she clearly and evenly di­vided her as­sets in her will.

But Mark­zon’s grand­mother ne­glected to de­tail where some of her per­sonal pos­ses­sions — her books, her cos­tume jew­elry, her purses — should go. An ar­gu­ment about those sen­ti­men­tal items en­sued, per­ma­nently di­vid­ing the fam­ily, said Mark­zon, a so­cial worker in Chicago.

“Even in the best of sit­u­a­tions, the death brings up emo­tions even if there aren’t prob­lems go­ing into the sit­u­a­tion,” Mark­zon said.

Even with a will, emo­tions run high when a fam­ily mem­ber has just died and there is money to dis­trib­ute. Now you’re com­bin­ing two things that peo­ple have high emo­tional re­ac­tions to as part of life: death and money, said Kel­ley Scrocca, an es­tate plan­ning at­tor­ney for Swier Law Firm, who re­cently worked in Illi­nois but now works re­motely from Ger­many.

Nearly half of plan­ning pro­fes­sion­als agree that the No. 1 threat to es­tate plan­ning is fam­ily con­flict, ac­cord­ing to a 2018 poll by TD Wealth.

A big part of the prob­lem is lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Only 21% of peo­ple tell their fam­ily mem­bers what to ex­pect in the will, lead­ing to con­fu­sion. And most peo­ple ex­pect to in­herit more than $100,000, but re­ceive less than that, ac­cord­ing to Ameriprise Fi­nan­cial.

“Money can be a sen­si­tive topic,” said Aliyyah Camp, pub­lisher at the fi­nan­cial com­par­i­son site Fin­der. “When you add the com­pli­ca­tions of fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, it’s easy for is­sues to arise.”

One side of the fam­ily may think they’re owed more be­cause they paid for their mother’s phone bill over the past few years, while the other side may say that they were promised a clock, but it wasn’t writ­ten in the will, said Scrocca, who de­scribed the es­tate plan­ning pro­fes­sion as 60% law and 40% ther­apy.

Scrocca said she’s seen fam­i­lies ruin their re­la­tion­ships over $5,000. She’s also seen par­ents leave one child money with the un­der­stand­ing that that child would take care of the other sib­lings with spe­cial needs, but that money was quickly gam­bled away or taken by cred­i­tors.

“I’ve seen a sib­ling be named ‘ex­ecu­tor,’ and then es­sen­tially squat in the house, not pay­ing taxes or keep­ing it up, mean­while the other sib­lings are stuck hav­ing to go to court to try to get the house sold so they can get their in­her­i­tance,” Scrocca said.

Camp said the best way to avoid in­her­i­tance ar­gu­ments is to hold a meet­ing with the peo­ple af­fected by it. When­ever you make ad­just­ments to the will, meet with every­one again, she said.

“It may be un­com­fort­able to dis­cuss your will so early, but it’s bet­ter than leav­ing your loved ones con­fused or in dis­agree­ment later on,” she said.

When dis­cussing the will, the distri­bu­tion of money can be a touchy sub­ject, es­pe­cially if one per­son needs it more than the other.

Shlomo Slatkin, a li­censed clin­i­cal pro­fes­sional coun­selor and a cer­ti­fied imago re­la­tion­ship ther­a­pist, sug­gested giv­ing all chil­dren equal por­tions of the will, even if one child is in deeper fi­nan­cial need.

“Trou­bles hap­pen when the distri­bu­tion is im­bal­anced, or one per­son is writ­ten out of the will,” Slatkin said.

If a client de­cides to leave a child a greater per­cent­age of the es­tate than the other child, it’s rec­om­mended that the client share this in­for­ma­tion soon af­ter sign­ing the doc­u­ments, said Deb­o­rah Dan­ger, a Mas­sachusetts at­tor­ney.

Full dis­clo­sure creates an op­por­tu­nity for chil­dren to ask the par­ent di­rect ques­tions about his or her de­ci­sion and “ac­knowl­edge hurt feel­ings and aid with the ex­pres­sion of anger in a con­trolled set­ting,” Dan­ger said.

If the per­son has al­ready passed away or lost ca­pac­ity and there are ques­tions or con­cerns about the will, then Dan­ger sug­gests con­tact­ing the cre­ator of the doc­u­ment if pos­si­ble (in most cases, this would be the es­tate plan­ner).

For ex­am­ple, she had a client with a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar es­tate and four chil­dren. He left the es­tate to the son and daugh­ter who lived near him, while the other two chil­dren were made the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of his $1 mil­lion life in­sur­ance pol­icy. This cre­ated re­sent­ment.

“I had per­mis­sion to ex­plain that their dad was grate­ful for the care that the two lo­cal kids pro­vided, in­clud­ing al­low­ing him to fre­quently in­ter­act with his grand­chil­dren,” Dan­ger said. “My client loved the kids who lived far­ther away just as much, but was hurt by what he per­ceived as dis­in­ter­est from the two non­lo­cal kids.”

While every­one in­volved said they wished these feel­ings were made known be­fore he died, un­der­stand­ing his ra­tio­nale made it eas­ier for them to ac­cept their fa­ther’s wishes without hold­ing it against each other.

But even in the most am­i­ca­ble of fam­i­lies, and even with the most open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, dis­agree­ments can still oc­cur. That’s why proper es­tate plan­ning in­stru­ments need to be in place, said Robert Drury, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Chris­tian Fi­nan­cial Ad­vi­sors.

First, every­one should have a will, which is the most ba­sic es­tate plan­ning tool, Drury said. If you don’t have one in ad­vance of death or an ac­ci­dent in which you lose ca­pac­ity, in­tes­tacy laws of the state where the per­son who died lived will de­ter­mine how the es­tate is dis­trib­uted.

“There­fore, two things are im­por­tant: that the terms of the will ac­cu­rately state the dece­dent’s wishes, and that as many as­sets as pos­si­ble be con­tained or dis­posed of us­ing in­stru­ments that by­pass pro­bate and are not sub­ject to court in­ter­pre­ta­tion,” Drury said. These in­clude liv­ing wills, trusts, in­sur­ance prod­ucts, re­tire­ment plans and de­posit ac­counts as­sign­ing rights of sur­vivor­ship.

“No mat­ter how badly the fa­mil­ial sit­u­a­tion breaks down, these in­stru­ments are im­mune to the fight,” Drury said.

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