A death in the family is traumatic and stressful, and something which all affected must come to terms with in their own way and in their own time. Unfortunately, it’s also usually the time during which emotions are running at their highest when family members need to come together and agree. In this ‘perfect storm’ of emotion, disagreements can quickly escalate into fights and, depending on the relative wealth or emotional value of the items and people involved, court battles.
When working through estate planning, you might think that your family will behave well—and you might be right—but it’s best not to leave anything to chance. People don’t always react rationally when under duress, so NOLO recommends the following tips to help ensure that your will is spelled out to a T:
1. Pick a qualified executor
Tradition might say that the oldest child should be the executor, but they may simply not be suited to the job. Your executor should be someone who is honest, communicative, and above all, someone who you can trust implicitly to follow directives after your death.
Daily Finance also recommends someone with legal or financial background, as they have the background knowledge to understand and navigate the technicalities that may arise.
2. Try to avoid surprises
Over the last few years, whenever I would visit my grandmother, she would always give me some trinket before I left—a piece of jewelry, a picture that I had always loved, even cookware one time—and she also did it with other family members as well. She was very open with who would get what upon her death as well, so upon her death, there was no fighting or disagreement over her belongings; we were able to mourn and cherish her memory without questions of money or inheritance hanging over our heads.
NOLO recommends communicating certain things to family members/heirs so they don’t feel left out or overlooked if not specifically mentioned in the will. Maybe there’s a friend or someone with whom you worked, and while they may not be mentioned in the will, you’d still like them to have a memento. These things can be communicated, and as long as everyone is aware that this is YOUR wish, it can help avoid hurt feelings.
3. Keep estate-planning documents as up-to-date as possible
Battles between children and stepparents are almost a soap opera cliché nowadays, but it speaks to the importance of making sure that documents are current and speak to YOUR wishes upon your death. The goal of these types of documents is to create harmony; advanced planning for even relatively modest estates can go a long way toward easing possible resentment.
Openly communicating changes, according to NOLO, “...can head off suspicions that you didn’t take an active role in your estate planning and were so influenced by someone else that your decisions weren’t really your own.”
You can’t always preclude fights over items with sentimental value, but you can leave instructions and notes with those who may warrant them. Providing guidance helps guarantee not only that items will go to whom they should, but also add more sentimental value when you’re gone.