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Family fights about estates: Is it about love, money or both?

Losing a parent or another close family member is hard enough. It gets even worse, however, when an inheritance dispute arises.

Why are these disputes so common? What can be done to avoid them and how are they best resolved if they do occur?

In this post, we will address these questions, focusing as much on the emotions involved as the legal structures.

What are some of the most common causes of estate conflicts?

Sometimes estate conflicts occur because the person who died did not make a will at all. The high-profile case of the famed musician Prince is a leading example of this. When someone dies without a will, sorting out who gets what among competing claims by would-be heirs can be a prolonged and contentious process.

Even if the person who died had an estate plan in place, there all sorts of reasons why family members and other heirs may fight about the estate. These include concerns about undue influence by caregivers and perceptions by some heirs that a family member chosen as the executor of the estate is not being fair to the other heirs.

What are some of the scenarios where executors can get in trouble?

If a parent appoints one of the children or the spouse of one off the children as the sole executor, the other children or their spouses may perceive the executor as being biased. This can also happen when someone appoints a surviving spouse as executor when that spouse is from remarriage and there are children from an earlier marriage.

Sometimes concerns about the conduct of the executor go beyond merely matters of perception. If the executor fails to perform the required duties to settle the estate, or engages in fraud or misconduct while doing so, he or she can be sued for breach of fiduciary duty.

To avoid issues arising out of sole control by an executor, some experts recommend appointing co-executors. For example, a parent could appoint all of the children, and they could then sort out who will actually serve in the role.

What about conflicts over items of personal property?

Personal property items can be particularly contentious because some of them have so much emotional value attached to them. For example, a family piano, jewelry or other heirlooms may be valued by a child far beyond their monetary value.

Complicated family dynamics are in play in these situations. A family social science professor, Marlene Stum of the University of Minnesota, has written a book about this called Who Get's Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?

To prevent disputes over personal property items, it may be helpful to get input from family members in advance about their preferences for certain items.

There are also other creative ways to handle personal property, such as having family members take turns selecting certain items while the relative who owns them is still alive.

Are many family disputes really more about feelings of love and rivalry, more so than money?

It depends of course on the particular case. But it is certainly true that in many cases, the dispute is not entirely or ultimately about the money. At bottom, it's about feelings of love, rivalry, resentment and other deep emotions that brew in the complex cauldron of family relationships.

To be sure, legal structures are important. But in seeking to avoid disputes, or resolve those that occur, it's also necessary to be aware of the complicated psychological factors that affect everyone involved in a family dispute.

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