By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys

Picture this: at the end of your long, fulfilling life, surrounded by your extended, loving family, you say goodbye and peacefully leave this world. And then… your family declares war on each other. Suddenly, family members are unhappy with the contents of your estate plan, and old rifts between loved ones reopen, possibly never to heal. Where do the disagreements end? In litigation, where your estate is dissipated and everyone walks away unhappy.
Unfortunately, this scenario is not as unlikely as it may seem. The news is full of stories of celebrity Will contests, like those involved in the recent Anna Nicole Smith, Gary Coleman, and Heath Ledger estates, not to mention the infamous Howard Hughes estate. Closer to home, you’ve probably heard about families in your own community that have been torn apart due to a disagreement over a loved one’s estate.

How do these disagreements arise, and more importantly, what can you do now to save your family the tragedy of a dispute over your estate after your death?

There are some factors that can increase the likelihood of family discord, including:

  • No estate plan in place
  • Second or later marriages, especially where there are multiple sets of children
  • Leaving a child out of an estate plan without explanation
  • Estate planning documents that are ambiguously worded
  • Family businesses with no clear succession plan
  • Incomplete or last minute estate planning
  • Existing hostilities among family members
  • Lack of communication with family to let them know your wishes

While there is no way to eliminate the possibility of a dispute over your estate, there are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of a conflict:

  • Don’t leave estate planning until the last minute.
  • Establish a pattern of updating your estate plan on a regular basis.
  • Keep the lines of communication open, so that your family knows what to expect from your estate plan.
  • If you have a family business, maintain a clear, workable succession plan.
  • To the extent possible, maintain good family relationships during your lifetime.

Possibly the most important step you can take to avoid a dispute is to engage the services of an experienced estate planning attorney. He or she can draft your documents so that they are not ambiguous and do not invite arguments.

If you are concerned about potential family conflict, your attorney can suggest a number of strategies for avoiding turmoil. For example, your attorney may suggest that you include an in terrorem (or “no contest”) clause in your estate plan that disinherits anyone who contests the document.

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