Scrapping over the will of a deceased person is more common than anyone but lawyers appreciate. I use the word “ appreciate” in two senses. First, meaning “know about” and secondly “benefit from”. Alas, it’s usually only lawyers who benefit from a fight over a will.
The argument might go something like this: “Mum left more to you than me. That’s not fair. I want the same or more because …” Have you heard this before as a quiet whisper from an upset friend when talking about the estate of a parent? Have you read it the paper when a wealthy family feud gets a headline? Have you had it happen to you?
It is quite common for families to fall out over actual or perceived unfairness when an estate – usually of a parent – is divvied up. And this is where the lawyers step in. To be fair they and the law are merely the civilised mechanisms for resolving what can be antagonistic, damaging and inevitably costly family disputes.
An early resolution within the family is unusual. Legal advice is sought, and if the worst happens it can rapidly escalate to become a damaging and costly dispute on the High Court hearing list. There are various ways to contest a will and they all cost serious money.
Whatever the outcome, everyone involved pays. How come? Most often the costs of the dispute, meaning each family member’s legal costs, court fees, and expert evidence, are paid out of the estate before anyone gets a dollar. Everyone gets less except the lawyers. Some say the deceased caused the dispute by not treating everyone equally, or not giving more to one who might genuinely have deserved extra or by not giving enough thought to dividing up their wealth. All cases are different, but one factor is the same: it costs.
The problem arises mostly where there is a will because if there is no will the law provides a scheme for payout, which is harder to dispute.
So If you are the surviving parent of adult children, how can you avoid the aggravation and cost for your family when you die?
It’s best to have a chat with your lawyer before that happens. Saying, as I have often heard, “I’ll be six feet under, so I don’t care” or “I’ll be a pile of ashes, you work it out” or similar might sound funny, but rather aggravates the problem and can spoil otherwise good memories of you. Moreover your beneficiaries, be they family, friends or charities, in effect all pay by getting less, which is probably not what you would want. There are ways to avoid or reduce the unpleasant aspects of disputed estates and the costs. Take the time now to get expert advice from a lawyer.
David is a Notary Public and formerly a lawyer in private practice for 43 years. He lives in Omaha and is involved with several environmental groups.