Grieving for a loved one who has passed away is a heartbreaking experience. Grief can turn to despair and even trauma if the family ends up arguing over the deceased’s estate.
In fact, according to recent research, one third (34 per cent) of Australians had experienced tension or conflict in their families over the distribution of assets and inheritance under a Will.
The research revealed that feuds could be prevented if some very simple steps were taken. Greater communication and clearer instructions while the person was still alive or perhaps a letter or video explaining their approach and reasoning are central to minimising the possibility of families being torn apart. Those left behind adopting a less competitive approach to the distribution of assets is also important to maintaining harmony.
So what are the main causes of Wills disputes? The survey respondents identified:
- A sense that the assets were unfairly divided
- The division or distribution of sentimental items, such as photographs, letters or clothing
- Confusion or differences of opinion around what the deceased would have wanted
- The use or maintenance of an asset such as a house
- An executor behaving unethically or unfairly.
So how can we minimise or avoid inheritance disputes and prevent further stress in a time of loss?
In my experience as an estate planning lawyer, it is all too common for people to have Wills that do not clearly explain how and why the wealth and assets are to be divided. Uncertainly causes a great deal of added strain and stress on grieving family members.
To minimise the chances of a dispute it is paramount that people clearly articulate in their Wills how their assets are to be divided and communicate it to the family early on. Often a letter to the executor explaining their wishes can be very helpful.
The single most important thing is to avoid ‘surprises’ and ‘misunderstandings’ that could arise once you have passed away. Identify potential areas of dispute before you pass away, and address them yourself. Have individual meetings or even family meetings to explain yourself. Just think – if you can’t resolve them when you are there to manage expectations, how do you think your family will resolve issues when you aren’t around? It’s not difficult to imagine what could occur.
Then of course, a comprehensive and up to date Will ensures that your wealth is managed and distributed as you wish and helps avoid family members behaving badly.
Leave behind fond memories. Don’t let your legacy be a family feud you created.
Have your Will reviewed every three to five years to ensure it is current; and keep in mind that changed financial circumstances such as the acquisition or sale of an asset, births, deaths, marriages and divorces are just a few of the events that may require a Will to be reviewed.
A Will that is up to date and clearly articulates how the wealth and assets are to be divided (and includes communications about why) will help to avoid unnecessary stress or disputes.
At the end of the day, estate planning can be a complex and emotional legal process, and obtaining experienced legal advice may be a godsend for your peace of mind and your family’s continued harmony.