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Estates & Wills & Trusts, Family

Communication key to avoiding estate disputes among adult children

When parents haven’t had a serious conversation with their adult children about how their estate is to be divided when they die, this can add confusion to the grieving process — and the resulting actions of difficult adult children can cause families to fracture, Ottawa family law and estate lawyer Timothy N. Sullivan writes in The Lawyer’s Daily.

But as Sullivan, principal of SullivanLaw, explains, there are a number of ways in which lawyers can help their clients avoid family conflict after the death of a loved-one.

The first, he writes, is to encourage honesty.

Many parents are reluctant to admit that they have a ‘difficult’ adult child. As a lawyer, combining detailed, neutral questioning with a bit of a ‘seen it all’ attitude can help parents feel more comfortable opening up about potential issues without feeling as though you’re going to judge them for having ‘failed,’” says Sullivan.

Lawyers should also provide clients with a non-judgmental environment, he adds, and avoid taking sides when it comes to discussions about family tensions that may go back years.

“A lawyer who can facilitate a family meeting — and act as, or engage a non-emotional mediator to help everyone stay focused — can help the client craft a will and estate plan that is clear, transparent and understood by everyone,” writes Sullivan.

Blended families also often have additional tensions, including the need for detailed personal property disbursements, says Sullivan, so it is important for lawyers to address these issues.

Also, says Sullivan, ‘fair’ doesn’t have to mean ‘equal.’ In fact, he explains, a will that calls for everything to be divided among three children equally can be a recipe for disaster as this generally means having to sell the family home, business or cottage so the proceeds can be split three ways.

“A will that acknowledges the adult child who wants to run the family business, the one who wants the cottage and the one who will be happy with a cheque and the family albums will do a better job at protecting family unity — and, in fact, family assets — than one which seeks to ensure that everyone gets an equal share, down to the last penny,” says Sullivan.

Finally, he writes, insist on detailed communication.

In my experience, 90 per cent of the problems involving difficult adult children happen because one or more beneficiaries were unaware of the contents of a will and are taken by surprise when they discover that an inheritance or disbursement isn’t what they thought it would be.”

As such, Sullivan says lawyers should encourage clients to speak to their adult children about their estate, before, during and after its preparation, as the client who canvassed their children's wishes will be better prepared to give instructions.

“The more the kids know — about the will, where it is, what’s in it, and who prepared it — the less likely the emotional (and legal) fallout,” he adds.

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