Inheritance Wars

Inheritance Wars

How to protect your estate from disgruntled or feuding heirs

By Alan G. Orlowsky, J.D., C.P.A.

Will your death trigger a long, expensive, and bitter inheritance war? Will your heirs battle over your contested estate — claiming, for example, that they deserve a bigger share of the money, arguing over who is most qualified to serve as executor, or debating whether you were competent when you signed your will?

Unfortunately, for many of you, the answer is yes: Your heirs will literally spend a fortune contesting your will and litigating issues that may even seem trivial. Often such battles are motivated not by questions of fairness and equity, or even financial gain, but by an irrational desire to resolve old sibling rivalries or perpetuate a family feud.

Fortunately, you can take precautions now — and you should, especially if you recognize that some of your family members don’t get along all that well — to head off conflicts, prevent headaches and heartaches, minimize legal expenses, and avoid long delays. A good estate planning attorney will advise you to take steps to prevent such conflicts, including the following:

  • Properly draft an “air-tight” will that leaves little room for legal challenges.
  • Appoint impartial, institutional and/or professional executors and trustees who will not be sucked into family feuds.
  • Make your intentions clear, and explain your reasons for any unusual bequest or disinheritance, either in a letter to family members or in a family meeting — before you die, of course — so family members can ask questions now, and heirs can’t argue post mortem over what you really meant.
  • If you are sick or partly incapacitated, obtain a doctor’s note attesting to your competence; have all family members witness your will; make a recording or videotape to provide evidence of your competence; etc.
  • Include a no-contest provision in your will. This states that an heir who contests the will forfeits his or her inheritance. (Caution: it may prevent lawsuits, but it may also promote more resentment.)

The Basis for Contesting a Will or Trust

The four most common legal grounds for contesting a will or trust are the following:

  • Undue influence. One child exerts undue influence on a parent in order to take a bigger share of the estate. For example, a son threatens to put his mother in a nursing home unless she leaves a bigger share of the estate to him.
  • Incompetence. If the person making the will or trust was not of sound mind, or did not understand the meaning of the document, then its validity is questionable.
  • Fraud. If a person makes a will or trust based on lies or deception, the document is invalid. For example, a daughter falsely tells her parent that her brother is engaging in criminal activity.
  • Ambiguous language. The meaning of a provision is unclear, or it can be interpreted in different ways.

About the Author

Alan G. Orlowsky, President of Orlowsky & Wilson, Ltd. in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has been counseling people on estate planning for over 30 years. He previously worked for the IRS in its Estate and Gift Tax Division. He also worked for the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm, and he has taught taxation and accounting at Loyola University of Chicago, School of Business.

Al is a contributing author of the book 21st Century Wealth (Esperti Peterson Institute, Denver, 2000), and has written numerous articles and blogs on the subject of estate planning. Contact Alan Orlowsky by email or call 847-325-5559.

Updated September, 2019

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