Updated: Aug 22
In last May’s blog, Beth shared the delicate experience of transitioning her mom to a smaller space, and lessons learned the hard way. Today we explore downsizing and inheritance ”uglies:” family fights and how to avoid them.
Beth recalls a funeral in which a sibling fight over who-got-what and who was paying for the funeral literally went to the grave. Sadly, that was a family who hadn’t prepared for either transitioning or the parent’s passing. It doesn’t have to be that way. Advanced planning while a parent is still thriving—yes, middle-age, even—and communication with all family members, can avoid such disasters.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
Despite what people assume, often the sibling wars aren’t over dollars—they are over those items with little monetary value, but overwhelming sentimental value. In a New York Times story, Darren Wallace, a partner and estate planning specialist at the law firm Day Pitney, says, “Most estate plans tend to focus on the big-ticket items: the house, the bank accounts, the investments, but often it’s the personal mementos that cause the most contention.” In that same story, Laurie Ruckel, partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb, explains, “…It’s that, ‘Dad was getting an award and wore that watch when I was in the audience and you weren’t even around.’”
PLANNING & COMMUNICATION
So how can siblings remain on speaking terms—at least—or remain treasures in each others’ lives into their own old age? Two words: planning and communication. The best scenario, as Beth said, is beginning the conversations with parents—and siblings—well before parents are considering downsizing.
Gently ask if they have a will, and if they have an executor or trustee. If not, urge them to begin because all siblings want the parents’ wishes carried out. Parents often say they don’t know where to start.
That’s where siblings can help. Prepare a list of estate planners and attorneys—agreed-upon by all siblings—including contact information, to make that first step an easy one. If parents remain unconvinced, consider this example, also from The New York Times citing John A. Warnick, an estate lawyer and the founder of the Purposeful Planning Institute:
“I ask parents to think just for a second what it would be like on Christmas morning if your children ran downstairs and there were all of these presents, bright and shining, big and small, but with no name tags on them,” he said. “Can you imagine the free-for-all that would ensue?”
Meanwhile, siblings should also talk. Agree that there are many sentimental items all family members would like, but that those are for mom and dad to bequeath. All siblings won’t get everything they’ve wanted, but some joint planning with parents may help.
Brad Klontz, a psychologist, financial planner and founder of the Financial Psychology Institute says in a Market Watch article, “The adult children stop talking to each other ‘because they’re certain one of the siblings talked the parent into doing that.’” Klontz adds, “Most estate plans fail because the parents don’t communicate their intentions.”
RESPECT, CONSIDERATION AND HONESTY
Where to turn? Peggy Post, great granddaughter of Emily Post, and director of the Emily Post Institute, suggests: “The underpinnings of etiquette are respect, consideration and honesty, and those benchmarks all apply.” Peggy offers a variety of suggestions for talking with parents—and siblings—about issues surrounding transitioning and death in an AARP article by Austin O’Connor. Peggy advises that, “There’s not a good blueprint for handling inheritance. Talking to people who deal in “estate planning” can give you pointers, professional and legal advice. But it does get tricky because family members forget to communicate. I think that’s the big problem.”
Peggy suggests one-on-one talks between parents and each child, but that all siblings gather—whether in person or by video conferencing—to make sure everything’s out on the table and everyone is on the same wavelength.
From there, plan those “memory parties” or dinners for the entire family. Record your parents’ stories about sentimental items.
Take photos galore. Then, find the writer in your group (or hire a professional photo organizer) to create a booklet showing the items and relaying the stories behind each item. It will be a treasure to share with your parents for years to come, and for siblings to savor—each with their own copy. That way, although only one sibling gets the item, all siblings can relish the memory. Plus, parents will relish the chance to tell such stories.
8 Family Transitioning Trouble Warning Signs
Sound do-able? It is. HOWEVER, it’s not always a smooth process. In fact, some families are fraught with warning signs that there may be trouble ahead when dividing up property. An article by Jordan
Burchette in Everplanning offers eight warning signs of when inheritances may be difficult, and how to manage them. They include:
Sibling rivalry (Appoint a professional third-party fiduciary.)
Economic disparity among heirs (Leave very specific instructions in the will.)
Co-trustees (Avoid it. Use only one trustee—preferably, a third party.)
Beneficiary dependency or mental illness (Use special trusts.)
Undue influence (on the part of one son or daughter) (Occurs when some siblings are apathetic about parents.)
Estrangement or disinheritance (Trustee should include a disinheritance clause.)
Late marriage (Insist on a clearly-defined trust.)
Advanced benefit to one heir and not the other(s) (Note the advanced gifts in the trust so amounts can be equalized after parents have passed on—if that is the parents’ wish.)
Above all, know that resources for transitioning, peaceful inheritances, and happy parents and children abound.
Need some additional organization assistance, learn how we can help. Contact Beth at (612) 616-1215 or email@example.com.
In addition to the mentioned articles, these links will help you: