When I was growing up in suburban northern Virginia, near our home in the midst of the developing sprawl was a large, untouched tract of land in a prime location. Despite the obvious money to be made in developing the land, it sat for a couple of decades. Throughout northern Virginia, similar tracts could be found.
The stories behind these parcels of land were almost identical. The farmer who owned the land for years wanted his heirs to share in the growing value of it, but he didn’t want to decide how the land was to be used or even who would make the decision. So a very simple will was written, leaving the land in equal shares to all his descendants.
And for decades the heirs fought over it. Some wanted to live on it; others wanted to maintain it as a working farm; still others wanted to donate it to charity; while another group wanted to develop it. And those who wanted to develop it were split between some who wanted to develop it themselves and some who wanted to simply sell to a developer. After decades of family strife, lawyers’ fees, and property taxes, they finally reached agreement.
Talk to any estate planner, and you’ll learn that many of the problems in settling an estate are unexpected and involve emotions. You can set up an estate plan with great tax benefits and that covers all the legal bases and still generate a great deal of family strife.
The most bitter disputes often revolve around the family homestead, vacation homes, and items of personal property. The sad fact is that children, even adult children, will fight if they want to fight. Childhood resentments or roles to spring to the surface, and in-laws get into the act. The estate or individual item of property involved doesn’t even have to be valuable to be the center of dispute. In fact, people who aren’t used to dealing with money can act irrationally when faced with an inheritance of any amount. Sometimes, neither child really wants an item; each just doesn’t want the other to have it or wants to be proven right or come out a winner.
Parents can avoid unpleasant legacies that splinter families and leave hard feelings. You have to remember that emotions often are tied up in property, and that there are potential conflicts among your heirs of which you might not even be aware. Then take these simple steps to reduce problems.
The only way to be sure that your heirs won’t fight over the estate is to provide that everything will be sold at auction and the cash proceeds distributed. But that process can be expensive. And the family would be deprived of valuable or sentimental property. A better solution is to set up a plan that anticipates conflicts, even irrational ones, and tries to defuse them ahead of time.