As anyone who has siblings knows, brothers and sisters don’t always get along. Throw inheritance or anything left behind by a loved one into that relationship, and the potential for serious family tension rears its ugly head.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to head off those heated moments, hopefully even before money becomes a matter of debate.
Setting the Stage
When a loved one passes away, emotions run high. Hopefully it’s a time that brings family together, but the reality is that the loss of a loved one is the most stressful time in a person’s life. And with stress comes tension and anxiety.
That anxiety can make people react in ways they might not normally. Tensions are ratcheted up, for certain. But knowing that going in might make common ground a little easier to reach when it comes to doling out a loved one’s things.
And, since there’s no right way to mourn, know that not everyone is as resilient or as focused as you might be. Patience on everyone’s part will go a long way.
Know What You’re Working With
Just as no two people mourn the same, no two families are exactly alike. Tight, distant, blended, traditional – it just doesn’t matter. The business of divvying up an estate is never easy. Neither is dealing with the relationships between everyone involved.
Going in, if you know two siblings have trouble getting along, you can gird yourself against that inevitable conflict. A little preparation on the emotional front goes a long way.
At the same time you’re preparing emotionally, prepare yourself on a more tangible level. Get help in discovering any accounts your loved one might have had by enlisting your family to help you chase them down.
Start with bank statements and pay stubs to find any outgoing payments and any accounts receiving payments. In my Dad’s case, the first stop my sister and I made was to a local bank branch to see what we needed to do first. My dad’s banker referred us to a lawyer and suggested we call my dad’s HR representative. Together, we had a clear picture of all of my Dad’s accounts.
When we were ready to speak to a lawyer, we were able to provide a clear picture of my dad’s estate, and were able to save our lawyer some legwork (and ourselves some money).
Open Up a Can of Talk
The first, and maybe even the easiest thing you can do to ease tension, is talk. And not just to your kid sister. Talk to everyone.
To get to some sort of agreement on estate assets, you have to understand everyone’s expectations, not only as a beneficiary, but also as a son, daughter, husband, wife, uncle, aunt, whatever. Talking is the easiest way to get everyone on the same page.
Get everyone in the immediate family together to discuss your loved one’s assets, the will, the inheritance and the estate as candidly as possible. Feelings will probably get hurt. But given the situation, everyone’s already hurting emotionally. Try to get through it together as best as you can.
Don’t assume you know family expectations either. You might be surprised at how much or how little some family members care about “dad’s stuff.” If there’s an understanding about everyone’s expectations, you’ll at least have a place to start.
If there ends up being a conflict, find common ground. Whether it’s an object from the house or the memory of the one you just lost, chances are that you’ll both agree that your departed loved one wouldn’t want there to be a fight.
Additionally, there’s a good chance you’re not the only peacemaker in the family. Find an ally in the cause for family harmony.
You’re All in This Together
When it comes to moving on the estate, leave no one in the dark, be an open book and over-communicate your actions. And above all, do everything together.
If you make a visit to the lawyer, let everyone know. If you drop by the house to shut off the water, let everyone know. If you have to make a trip to the bank in the name of the estate, let everyone know.
In the name of transparency, copy everyone on your communications. Not only does it keep everyone up to speed, it gives you documentation should anything come into question.
If you make your actions transparent, the rest of the family will hopefully do the same. It’s a good faith gesture that people usually reciprocate.
Lawyer Up … Or Don’t
You might think that a lawyer is your last resort in matters of disputed estates, but the truth is, a lawyer might not be the best way to go.
There are two simple reasons:
- Lawyers cost money.
- Lawyers aren’t your only option.
If you and your family have hired an estate attorney, his or her fees will most likely be either an hourly fee or a percentage of the estate. You can arrange to have their fees come directly from the estate itself. If all goes well, you might not have to pay one cent out of pocket.
If you hire a lawyer for representation as the result of a disputed inheritance, however, it’s all on you. Your lawyer will be a different attorney than the estate attorney, and your lawyer will represent you in the dispute. That’s the kind of lawyering you pay for.
Second, a lawyer isn’t the only way to go when it comes to disputed inheritances. Mediation is a viable option as well. With mediation, the parties in question sit down with a licensed mediator whose mission is to represent the best interests of everyone involved. A mediator is impartial, and works toward the common good of everyone involved. The end result is a consensus that’s agreed upon by everyone involved, and a mutual understanding of each other’s concerns.
So do everyone a favor. Communicate, educate and self-mediate. Because when it all comes down to it, you’d rather remember the time you spent with your loved one, not the time bickering over what’s left after he or she is gone.
Have you had any issues dealing with the estate of a loved one? Share with us how you navigated the rough waters of conflict in the comments below.
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