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Barbara Moss: Avoid the family fight

Barbara Moss • Updated Dec 25, 2017 at 11:00 AM

You love your family. We all want our families to get along, grow together and continue to lean on each other after we are gone. I’ve never had a client who wanted his or her death to cause a fight or even lasting enmity among heirs.  

All too often, however, that is exactly what happens. I’ve seen families end up with bitter feelings that will likely never be overcome, and I’ve seen huge chunks of an estate wasted on litigation.

To head this off, it’s helpful to think about why families fight. In my experience, families fight because particular members have developed hurt feelings over the years. These feelings may even go back to early childhood.  

All of the hurt feelings are activated and magnified by the emotional difficulty of losing a loved one. Suddenly, we are in a narrative of “She always loved you better;” “You’ve always gotten more than your share;” “You’ve bossed me around since I was born;” and “I knew that the [new wife] would take away what should have come to his children.” Does any of this sound familiar?  

Another reason family members fight is that, in our culture, money and things are seen as a substitute for love and esteem. Children are devastated when their mom left a younger sister the diamond ring that they always believed would belong to them.  Or they are furious that dad changed his will to leave his son 40 percent and each of his daughters only 30.

So, what can we do to try to avert this disaster?

• The first thing I recommend is that families be open about money. My parents were from a generation that never told children anything about money. Not only can this create a shocking surprise when the will is circulated, it can also make gathering up and dividing assets according to the will or trust very difficult for our heirs.

• The next thing is to treat children as even-handedly as possible. Unless you have a good reason that everyone would agree on, show your children in death that you loved them all equally. 

• If you have one child who is handicapped, fine. If you want to give one child more because he or she hasn’t been successful, think about it. How will your children who have worked so hard to be successful feel?

• Consider letting your heirs divide your personal property, your “stuff,” according to what they most want. Children can draw straws for who goes first and then take turns choosing the pieces that mean the most to them.

• If you have a lot of things, they can be divided up in groups according to value.  Sentimental things can be in one group, items with a value up to $1,000 can be in another group, etc. 

• Don’t use your will or trust as a way to try to control the behavior of your family.  It’s time to give up the illusion that you can control other people.

To sum it up, you need a plan for what you want to happen to your personal property and your other assets. You need to put that plan in writing.  If you have reasons to treat your heirs unequally, now is the time to explain this to them.  And you should never change your will, or threaten to change your will, to get the behavior you want.

The No. 1 goal of your plan should be to bring your family together, not to divide them, after your death.  

Barbara Moss, founder of Elder Law of Nashville, has practiced law in Nashville for more than 30 years.

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