If your family is dysfunctional, you are by no means alone. Even in the happiest of families, there is likely to be someone dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, criminal behavior, severe mental illness or behavioral problems. Almost all families contain members who do not get along with, or are estranged from, one another; for that matter, almost all families include members who are just plain strange. When crafting your will, you should remember to consider that family dysfunction may interfere with the smooth execution of your will.
To make sure that you don’t leave your family struggling with dissension and strife when you pass away, you need an experienced estate planning attorney to guide you. Only in collaboration with a consummate professional will you be certain your estate is properly structured, your will is unambiguously worded, and your wishes will be carried out as you intend. A good estate planning attorney will have the in-depth knowledge of state and federal law to ensure that your will is legally valid and your hard-earned assets are protected for those you love most.
Your will (as in “last will and testament”) is the document in which, among other things, you name your beneficiaries. Though there are certain stipulations you must follow (for example, you cannot completely disinherit your spouse in Massachusetts), for the most part, your will is shaped by your personal decisions. When your decisions are atypical, such as leaving one of your children a greater share of your assets than another, your wills and trusts attorney will help you to explain your rationale in order to avoid sibling squabbling after you die.
Common Problems with Wills
There are several reasons that wills may cause dissonance or even be contested, including:
- More than one marriage — If your current marriage is not your first, you may have children from an earlier marriage to whom you are leaving a large portion of your estate. You may also have stepchildren you may or may not want to provide for. All of this has to be carefully spelled out, and, if possible, clarified with those involved while you are alive.
- Sibling Rivalry — You most likely want to treat all of your children fairly, but inequities are part of life. One child may have special needs or be living on a much lower income from the other. One child may have received your financial assistance during your lifetime. These situations may color your thinking, but must be explained if you are to prevent conflict.
- Co-Trustees — Two people are not likely to be totally in sync about financial, emotionally charged decisions. Therefore, if you appoint joint trustees, you are asking for trouble
- Unreliable Beneficiaries — In some cases, you may be hesitant to leave a lump sum of money to a loved one because that individual is unstable and will predictably go through the assets much too quickly. This may occur if the person is addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex, mentally ill, or simply a spendthrift.
- Accusations of Undue Influence — If you are leaving a large proportion, or even the entirety of your estate to a new spouse, love interest, or devoted caretaker, your other heirs may contest your will on the basis that you have been unduly influenced or manipulated. If this seems plausible in your case, your attorney will preplan how your executor can prove your competency at the time of signing your will.
Solutions Your Estate Planning Attorney Can Help You Arrange
Engaging the services of a savvy estate planning attorney is the first step toward facilitating the execution of your will. Your attorney will assist you in preventing family disturbance after you pass away and keeping your will from being contested because she/he will foresee potential problems and help you prevent them.
Creating appropriate trusts to protect assets while supporting your loved ones may solve many foreseeable problems. Keeping careful records of “gifts” to one of your heirs that may be considered advances on future inheritance is also useful in preventing future squabbles. In some cases, your estate planning attorney may recommend putting a “no contest” clause into your will which will deprive an heir who contests your will from inheriting even the amount she or he considers disproportionately small.
Every family has a little dysfunction. But, the wonderful thing about having a talented estate planning attorney is that he/she has drafted a wide range of wills, and has, in all probability, dealt with a family that had even more dysfunction than yours.