A friend recently arranged to have his will prepared. He told me he planned to bequeath his one piece of real property in three equal measures to his brother and his two sons. In other words, three persons would become co-owners of one property.
I asked whether he planned to discuss with them the terms (not the value) of his bequest. He replied that they refused to discuss the matter. He said their unwillingness to discuss the bequest almost guaranteed a dispute over the distribution of the property after his death. He acknowledged that from past experience he was powerless to avert this outcome. Discussions about death or money were out of the question.
I recalled how a grandparent I knew bequeathed unequal amounts of her estate to her three adult children. Again, no discussion of the terms of the bequest before her death, leaving her children to assume she favored one child over the others. The outcome? Rancor and distrust among the siblings for the rest of their lives. Instead of blaming their parent who failed to have “The Conversation,” they grew further apart.
In my friend’s case, I could only imagine what might happen if one heir wanted to sell the property, another preferred to lease it on a long-term basis, and another wanted to use for his son who was moving to Washington, DC.
Aside from strapping down the heirs and forcing them to discuss the bequest before his death, what other options are there?
- My friend could name a third party executor to dispose of the property upon his death and distribute the proceeds in equal amounts, minus the executor’s fee. That way, the heirs could heap blame on the executor and avoid an internecine battle among themselves.
- He could bequeath all or a portion of the property to a charity thus avoiding any fights among the heirs and take the heat post mortem.
- Finally, he could write his future heirs and state that he wanted them to sell the property upon his death. He could further explain that not discussing the terms of his bequest now risked a long-term dispute after his death, something he hoped they would avoid.
Other solutions may exist. What struck me about our original conversation was his conviction that no matter what he attempted, a fight among his heirs was inevitable. In a world where strife and bitterness seem ubiquitous, this is one fight that could be avoided.
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