Avoid a Family Feud with Thoughtful Estate Planning
Have you ever thought about what happens after you die? Do you envision your family remembering you fondly?
Think again. Chances are instead, your heirs will be battling each other over your estate, and might end up not
talking to each other for years and in some cases never again.
Consider this scenario - Anne had three daughters. The oldest predeceased her, the second, Carol is a
substance abuser and Lisa, the youngest is a successful business woman. Anne continually argued with her
daughter Carol, accusing her of theft. Lisa was the one who looked after her mother, visiting her regularly in the
nursing home. Anne decided to punish Carol, leaving her only a minimal amount of money and the bulk of this
large estate went to Lisa. The outcome was predictable. The sisters no longer speak. Lisa now laments she does
not have a sister or mother to talk to and wonders what could have been done to prevent the death of the family.
Canadian society does not like to talk about death as it is a taboo subject that often frightens us. Yet what
happens after the death of a parent can be even more upsetting. The tension often starts at the funeral. One child
wants a certain family or cultural ritual to be followed, and the suggestion is dismissed by others. The children
then read the will and find there are surprises and that the will is perceived as unfair. Or they discover their parent
has either only outlined the basics to them or that only one sibling has full knowledge of the will's contents.
How many times have you listened to your friends say they are no longer speaking with a sibling, or they wonder
what they did to hurt their parents after being disinherited without prior knowledge?
These problems can be diluted and even prevented if parents take the step of having an open dialogue with their
adult children about their estate plan. This will reduce the power of the taboo in talking about death as well as
encourage an awareness of the potential consequences of estate planning on all family members. There are tools
and concepts to help avoid some of the harm done by wills written from a one-sided perspective and with little
consideration of the effect on others.
Make the transition meaningful, loving and compassionate
The following four Legacy Principles have been written to help guide parents during the writing of their will and the
estate planning process.
Create a hopeful vision for the future.
It is commonplace for organizations to conduct strategic planning activities to ensure the organization's long term
survival. This strategizing typically includes creation of a vision and mission statement, definition of critical
success factors and operational plans that direct the efforts of staff to take the organization into the future.
Individuals can use the same process in preparing their own estate plans when deciding on the distribution of
property, possessions and capital. Focus on the positive outcomes you wish to engender within your family,
friends and community through your written legacy.
Provide meaningful explanations of your hopes and intentions.
Traditional estate plans typically focus on matters such as taxes, trusts, powers of attorney, beneficiaries, and
distribution of property. The traditional will is written in a legalistic, dispassionate manner and usually kept secret
until the time of death, too often resulting in suspicion and distrust among family members. Legacy planning
philosophy encourages parents to share their intentions, hopes and concerns with the family in order to develop
an understanding of motivations and lessen the possibility of negative or misinformed interpretations of these
Approach estate planning as a reflection of your values
Thoughtful estate planning enables us to reflect upon our lives. It is a contemplative exercise that can help to give
coherence and meaning to the events and choices that have formed and directed how we have lived our lives. By
engaging our families in discussion, we are encouraging our loved ones to be explicit about these matters and
therefore are better able to communicate to our families and communities the significance of the gifts we choose
to leave to them.
Consider the enduring impact of your legacy on all your family's generations.
The family is a complex institution that can provide love and support to its members, or create whirlpools of hurt
and despair. Conventional estate plans are often a sad reflection of the dysfunction that can occur within families
as children are disinherited, decisions are made that thwart reconciliations, and the pain is continued through
By shifting the primary focus to how we want relationships to be within the family and our wider concerns about
community after we are gone, subsequent decisions about money, property and possessions flow from a
foundation of compassion and care. Thoughtful estate planning, which focuses on hopes, values, and the
meaning of a life well led, forms the basis for a true and lasting legacy of hopefulness for generations.
Tools to help you take charge of your legacy
Legacy Coaching and Family Conference Mediation are two tools to help you take charge of your legacy.
Before the formal estate planning work begins with a legal or financial expert, it is often helpful to engage a
professional who can help you to explore some of the critical issues. There are many sensitive topics that parents
face during the estate planning process and estate planners do not have either the training or time to invest in
complicated family dynamics.
One of the first considerations is whether the estate should be divided evenly among all the children. There are
some difficult decisions to be made if one child is estranged while other children are attentive and loving. Other
issues include disabled children needing extra care and financially irresponsible children you think might
squander their inheritance.
The next issue becomes the division of your possessions. Do you really want the children to argue over the family
cottage? Would it not be helpful to have this discussion while you are alive, so everyone has a better
understanding of your intentions? It is not unusual to find that one child has more attachment to the cottage than
the others. You can then decide if you want to leave the cottage to the one child, and compensate the other
children in other ways.
And don't forget about the grandchildren. You may assume that the adult children will pass estate funds and
property to their children. This does not always happen, so if you wish for a grandchild to have a specific item or
some money you should make your intentions known.
What charities or foundations are important to you? You may want to specify the organizations to which you wish
to leave any endowments. Another innovative idea is to start your own foundation or scholarship fund. This would
leave a real lasting legacy.
The estate trustee plays a critical role and should be carefully selected to ensure the smooth management of the
parent's wishes, as well as family relationships that will be affected while the estate is being closed. If the trustee
is not one of the beneficiaries, be sure to involve him or her in family discussions to clarify how everyone will
communicate and make decisions.
A professional who is trained in both coaching skills and family dynamics can be a useful resource to help you
explore concerns and make decisions that reflect your values and hopes for the next generation.
Family conference mediation
A family conference is a useful method to preemptively deal with divisive issues that affect a family. The
conference brings families together while the parents are alive to review the estate plan and to address any
potential painful conflicts. A professionally trained mediator assists the family in resolving issues about the estate
and aims to reach agreement among all the participants. Mediation can not only prevent potential legal disputes,
but is less costly than a court process in the unfortunate event of a challenge to the will.
Most importantly, mediation can help to strengthen relationships within the family. You can protect your family
from disasters such as the one faced by Lisa and Carol. With the mediator's help, you can tell family members
about your estate plan and obtain their understanding (and hopefully approval) of that plan.
To initiate a family conference, you first need to arrange for a family conference mediator and together you decide
on a neutral location and time. The next step is to invite the adult family members and obtain their written consent
to participate. During the preparation period, you will need to decide on an agenda so the conference can be kept
on track and all your information is presented.
The goal of the conference is to have all family members sign a Family Conference Agreement approving the
estate plan and agreeing not to contest the will. It also reviews the parent's wishes and any amendments that
have been reached during the family conference. If the meeting goes well, this can happen in a single session. In
some cases, subsequent meetings will need to be held. Once the conference is completed, the mediator will draw
up the Agreement. All family members sign the document and each one is given a copy.
(If the situation arises that a family member refuses to attend the conference it should still continue with as many
family members as possible. The mediator will talk to this person and try to establish reasons for the absence. If a
family member refuses to sign the agreement, their reason for not signing should be documented in case there
are challenges to the estate at a later date. This will make it difficult to prove incapacity or undue influence.)
Following this, your lawyer and other professional advisors can prepare the necessary documents, including wills,
trusts, powers of attorney and deeds of gift, to implement your estate plan. Once that is done, you need to be
diligent in reviewing the estate plan to make sure it reflects your wishes.
Family conferencing can also be utilized in the succession planning of a family business so that both the business
and family relationships survive. The conference aim is to design a family council with a responsibility to develop
mechanisms to reach consensus, make effective decisions and overcome impasses about the direction of the
One of the major benefits of the family conference is the fostering of family ties. You are not left wondering what
happens after your funeral, but instead, have the reassurance that your children will be sharing memories instead
of arguing over money.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lorraine Joynt, MCA, mediator/facilitator, www.aplaceformediation.ca (416-967-9432)
Ruth Edelstein, MA, mediator, www.aplaceformediation.ca (416-967-9432)
Linda Somers, M.Ed, Legacy Coach/mediator, www.will -help.com (416 – 638-3838)