When grieving the loss of a loved one, getting sidetracked with inheritance disputes between family members only adds stress to an already stressful time. To head off a potential estate battle before it happens, it's important to make a plan with your parents, siblings and other key family members.
Here are a few ways to prevent and resolve disagreements over assets after a loved one passes away.
1. Start the Conversation Early
In the wake of a loss, when emotions are running high, it can be difficult to talk about money, property and assets. Research by The Williams Group found that most affluent families fail to have open conversations about money. This may save awkwardness in the short term but can ultimately hurt family relations.
Don't wait to begin discussing inheritance expectations with parents and siblings. Now is the time to start the conversation, even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first. Ask your loved ones about their estate plans so that you can follow through on their wishes.
2. Divide Items Before a Loved One Passes Away
Planning can help avoid arguments over a cherished family heirloom in the days or weeks following a loss. If your parents or elderly loved ones are keen to downsize, consider earmarking items for certain family members in the future. If you're worried that disagreements could still come up down the road, get the agreements in writing with the help of an attorney.
3. Name an Attorney as Executor
During the estate planning process, most people identify an executor to step in when the time comes and oversee their outstanding legal and financial obligations, which includes carrying out the will according to the deceased's wishes.
Some people name a child or close family member as the executor of their estate, but experts warn this can be a bad idea if relations are tense between the executor and other family members in the will. In that case, it may be better to entrust an unrelated third party — such as an attorney — to carry out the role of executor and ensure assets are divided fairly. If a family member is named executor but does not feel they can execute the will impartially, they can renounce the role and transfer the duties to a neutral third party.
4. Work With a Co-Executor
If you're named the executor of an estate, you have the option to appoint a co-executor, such as a sibling, to work together on dividing assets fairly. This can be an effective way of giving multiple family members ownership of executor duties while avoiding conflict between family factions.
5. Bring in a Mediator
If you're already in the thick of inheritance disputes, a mediator can help you avoid veering into litigious territory. A neutral, third-party mediator such as a lawyer or retired judge brings family members together to negotiate and divide assets. Working with a mediator is less expensive than litigation and can also help preserve your family relations.
Communicate Early and Often
Even if your family relations are harmonious, it's a good idea to start talking and set clear expectations for inheritances, including deciding who should be named executor and how financial and sentimental assets will be split among family members. The more you communicate today, the less likely you are to encounter discord in the future.