9/21/2011 4:57 PM ET|
How to avoid fights over Mom's stuff
When a parent dies and the children are faced with dividing up the possessions, things can get ugly. But by taking certain steps, the survivors can avoid family warfare.
Most people who die leave behind stuff. And many, if not most, families wind up fighting over that stuff.
Julie Hall, otherwise known as "the Estate Lady," says sibling battles over parental possessions have broken out in more than 80% of the estates she has liquidated.
"People will tell me, 'Oh, that will never happen in our family. Our children are so close, there aren't going to be any problems,'" said Hall, who blogs at The Estate Lady Speaks and has written several books on clearing out an estate, including "How to Divide Your Family's Estate and Heirlooms Peacefully & Sensibly." "I smile and say, 'That's so nice,' but I know that after (the person dies) they will fight over the craziest things."
I would love to say our family didn't join those ranks when my father died two years ago. But one of the few things I wanted from Dad's estate -- the military medals of his brother, who was killed in action in Korea -- was something my brother wanted as well.
We wound up dividing them, but there was a pretty fierce tug of war there for a while. And that's too bad, because the last thing our parents would have wanted is for us to fight over stuff.
"Post-death family feuds are terrible," said Los Angeles estate planning attorney Jon Gallo, who with his psychotherapist wife, Elaine Gallo, runs Gallo Consulting to help families navigate this rocky terrain. Such battles can make a traumatic time even more stressful, he said, even leading to lifelong rifts.
Things can really get ugly if parents treat children unequally, Gallo said, or if a particular item stirs strong emotions for more than one person.
"Usually it's something that's a reminder of their childhood," said Jon Gallo, who has co-authored several books with his wife, including "Silver Spoon Kids" and "The Financially Intelligent Parent." "There's a deep psychological connection."
Pretty soon, siblings descend into the "Mom always liked you best!" or "You always got your way!" squabbles that punctuated their childhoods. Maturity, reasonableness and rationality can fly out the window. In the worst situations, siblings may steal items from the estate or bully another heir into giving up a cherished item, causing hard feelings all around.
There are some ways, however, that may head off warfare within the family:
1. Get the parents to decide.
In an ideal world, Hall said, the parents would decide who gets what in a financially equitable way. The kids may not like the parents' decisions, but they're more likely to accept them -- and less likely to end up hating each other -- if they don't have to work out a distribution plan themselves, she said.
Hall is a big fan of parents asking their kids in advance what items they might want -- with no guarantees that asking means getting. Items of value should be appraised, and then the parents can draw up a list that ensures each sibling receives roughly the same dollar value of stuff.
If parents do treat children unequally, they'd be smart to leave behind a written or videotaped explanation of why, Gallo said.
"We encourage people to talk to their kids as well, but . . . people hear what they want to hear," said Gallo, who offers to record on video special interviews with clients so their heirs can better understand their wishes. The videos can be played after death so there's no question about what the parents wanted.
"The parents can say, 'George, we know you wanted the such and such, but we've decided to give it to Mary. She didn't influence our decision in any way, and we want you to know that and accept our decision," Gallo said. "Or 'Pete, we've helped you out in the past, and now we're giving more to Paul because he has health problems.'"
2. If the parents do leave it up to the kids to divide the stuff, there should be a stick along with all the carrots.
For example, the parents could state in their wills that if the kids are in charge of dividing up the household goods but can't agree on who should get an item, that item is given to charity, Gallo said.
Or it could be sold. "If everybody wants the grandfather clock, sell it and divide the proceeds," Hall counseled.
Some people are shocked at the idea of selling a family heirloom, Hall said, but she points out that such heirlooms can cause generation upon generation of trouble.
"When that person (who got the clock) dies, then there's a whole new uproar over who will get it and how it wasn't fair she got it in the first place," Hall said. "Get rid of it, split the money."
3. In the absence of parental guidance, the kids can make a pact to keep the peace.
Start with the idea that your folks (probably) wouldn't have wanted you to come to blows over stuff. Talk about this with your sibs. Focus on honoring your parents' memories and respecting each others' feelings, rather than just getting what you want out of the deal.
If you hit a sticking point, consider the option of donating the item to charity or selling it to split the proceeds. Other methods that can be used include:
- Drawing straws, with the short straw picking first and the others going next in order of straw size. (Dice or playing cards can also be used to select who goes first, who goes next and so on.)
- Using birth order, with the oldest choosing first and the youngest choosing last in the first round. Then the youngest goes first, followed by the next oldest and so on.
- Conducting auctions where everyone gets an equal amount of play money and can bid on the items he or she wants most.
- Selling everything, then dividing the proceeds.
- Conducting auctions with family members using their own money to buy what they want, then everyone splits the proceeds equally.
Before you choose a method, though, think hard about how well it's likely to work with your family. Hall believes each method can cause problems and lingering resentments, but she prefers the last option when parents haven't been clear about their wishes, because it's the method least likely to cause later recriminations.
4. The in-laws and grandkids need to stay out of it.
This process is hard enough without spouses of siblings sticking their oars in. Maybe you felt exceptionally close to your mother-in-law or father-in-law and feel obligated to let everyone know what they would have wanted. Please, resist the urge to share. The best thing you can do for your spouse and your family is to support the family pact of peace. On every other topic, keep your mouth shut.
Dragging in the wants or needs of the grandkids is also likely to muddy the water. Otherwise reasonable people can go nuts when they think they're defending, or providing for, their kids.
If you're tempted to get all misty-eyed about passing things down to your children, understand that they probably aren't nearly as sentimental as you are. If there's an item you're willing to fight your siblings over, picture it on a yard sale table with a $5 tag attached -- because that may well be where it winds up eventually.
"The younger generation wants the cash," Hall said. "All the things that meant so much to you are going to be hastily taken care of when you're gone."
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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As I write this at 300am from Illinois. I recall this memory. When I was a child, My grandfather died. I barely remember him but see pictures and briefly recall. He was fifty when he passed and recall the shock to his 4 boys (my dad) and 1 daugher. One day, a couple years later, I was probably like 10, my grandmother gave me a small white box. Inside the box was a gold pocket watch with a boy fishing design. It is beautiful. I'm 40 years old and it's still in the same box. That single item is a reminder of a different time, when things were easier.
What I liked most was my grandmother gave it to me to remember my grandfather whom I barely remember. That what the 'Stufff" should be about@!!!!!!
My mother inherited from my father who very clearly stated in his will that he was leaving everything to her with the understanding that she would pass it on equally to the children (3 of us) when she died. This did not happen at all. Because my sister lived in the same city, much (but not all) of mother's day to day contact fell to my sister. I would travel 120 miles roundtrip every other week-end and spend the day with my mother, cleaning, working in the yard and doing all of the heavy jobs for her. I took many days off work to sit by her side when she was in the hospital. My sister would pick up groceries once a week or medicines periodically and drop them off, spending no more than 10 minutes with her. She hated having to do that and was quite verbal about it. To make a long story short, my mother gave her the house to 'buy' her continued help. My brother and I knew nothing about this and it did not come to light until about six months before she died - we only knew our sisters 'attitude' had changed somewhat. After mom died, my sister would not allow either me or my brother to go into the house. There was no division of property at all. I was a co-trustee of mom's trust but my sister was not willing to share other matters of the estate until I hired a lawyer and filed a Motion for Disclosure (she told relatives that we 'sued' her). We found out she was using estate monies to pay for expenses for the house. It also took the attorney's effort to get anything from what was once all of ours home.... we did get some photos and ten boxes of junk not even worthy of a garage sale.
Because of my sister's greed and our mother's deceit, my brother and I were cheated out of our father's legacy. And by her choice she will have no contact with us.
Cheftostars421 said it perfectly "A person's true colors arise when she values personal gain over the love of her own family."
I worked for an attorney once who said, "There are people who make their living, going from one funeral to another". They are called grave robbers.
The best advice he gave me is to die broke. Your last check should bounce! Give all your priceless treasures away to whoever you want while you are alive and can see them enjoy it. If you don't, it will either be the cause of a lot of friction or end up selling for $1.00 in a garage sale.
When my mother died, my sister pulled a stunt that was just mean spirited. I haven't spoken to her in over 10 years now.
When my brother and I shared an on campus apartment in college, he (23 months younger) received room, board (full meal plan) tuition, books, car insurance, an allowance, etc. I paid my own way. He is now upset that my dad (wealthy) says he is giving everything to his 2nd wife and their son. Well, it's his. He can do what he wants with it. His wife has put up with him for almost 40 years and my youngest brother is downs syndrome. That brother NEEDS security. The one who wore $50 jeans when I was buying my own clothes in high school, he needs to grow up.
I'm not bitter at my parents for how differently we were treated. I do have contempt for my brother for not appreciating all he was given and instead feeling he should be given all.
We have four sons and 1 daughter...want all my jewlery to go to my daughter as the daughter-in-laws have their own mother to get jewlery off of. Would like an opinion on these thoughts.....
I encourge everyone to make sure their parents have a will and designate what items go to which child. This is the easiest way to settle things. Parents do not need to keep putting this off. All it takes is a handwritten list of who gets what and attach it to their Last Will and Testament. Parents please do not wait until you reach an age where you are forgetful to do this. It will keep your family intact long after you are gone and it will allow the children to remain close to each other after your death. Dont let your family be torn apart because of your few items.
The best of families will fight over possessions that belonged to a mother or father. And if you don't decide then the child who did the most for your while you were alive is normally the one left without the things they really wanted because their greedy siblings come in and take everything. I have been in the legal field for over twenty years and this happens more than you know. For example: your youngest child never marries, stays at home and solely takes care of you and your husband until both of you pass away. You believe that her brothers and sisters know that she gets the house because she has always lived with you and taken care of you. But when you die, all H.... breaks loose because the others wants the property sold and the money divided between all the childlrlen. So even though you thought the siblings would do the right thing and give the youngest child the home it all goes south. So please make a last will and testament NOW......
When my brother-in-law died, my husband and I received his $1,497,120.00 estate when it was liquidated. His wife, my husband's sister, had died 4 years prior and had asked him to leave the estate to her brother as there were no children born of their union and she wanted it to go to him. He abided by her wishes, much to the dismay of her widower's family, who, I might add, were shocked when they found out what his will revealed and broke into the deceased house to search for a newer will and even *demanded* his lawyer look for a newer will they were certain he must have written . A brief court fight ensued which was thrown out. While the lawyers who acted as administrators of the estate and executors of the will handled the legal matters, I was amazed at the gall of the deceased family...........it was "gimme gimme gimme" the whole time...yet up until they found out how much the man was actually worth they had not had time for him. Isn't that always the way? The icing on the cake was the fact that there was ONE will and only one, and it was accepted by the court to be valid and I can still remember the look of satisfaction on my face when I saw the attorney hand a check for $100,000.00 to the woman who had been a faithful employee to him for over 30 years...one who had cooked, cleaned, and cared for him and his wife when they were both sick, cared for his wife as tho she was her child.....cared for her in her final days of a terrible illness that took her life and in one that took his life....
Sad to see the greed that is inside those people. Greed is such an ugly thing. I do suggest tho, that you write down what you want each child to receive, whether it be money or an object. I have a lot of collectibles and 2 girls...one is a klutz.....(I say that in a loving way) and she would not and could not enjoy or appreciate some of the fine collectibles I have so will not receive them. On the other hand, my other girl would not appreciate some of the Native American collectibles (a vast collection of arrowheads, etc)I have acquired over the years.....so they will not be her's.......simple as that. I have a long list of who gets what......for the daughters and sons, grandsons and granddaughters.....no grouching and grumbling. As far as money goes....they don't know about the late uncle's estate. There is no need to know. They were each given a small gift of money. No reason to explain tho......just because we felt like it....they were told.
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