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A Family United A Family Divided In The Media

Minneapolis-St. Paul Pioneer Press

Talking is Best Way to Avoid Family Feud Over Will

Gail Marks Jarvis

Q. I'm trying to prepare a will but am not sure what to do with some of my belongings, like my car. I want to treat my sons equally, but one son isn't as well off as the other. I am thinking of giving some of my possessions to the son who needs them most, but I don't want the other one to be upset. Any advice?

A. This is not an unusual situation, and you are wise to proceed with caution. Parents often inadvertently ignite hard feelings with their wills even when they try to show no favoritism.

Toronto wills attorney Les Kotzer has written a book/music CD based on his experiences with clients. He describes family members at each other's throats over photo albums, vases and even a lunch box. While people think of money and expensive possessions as the volatile stuff mentioned in wills, relatively inexpensive objects can be the focus of dear memories. The division of those objects can be as explosive as doling out material wealth.

In the song "The Family Fight," Kotzer describes a scene between two warring brothers following their mother's death:

"We're dividing all of mother's things,
Deciding on her rugs and rings
I can't believe what's happening tonight.
Can't split a painting on a wall
Or share a table in the hall.
I never dreamt that we could fall apart;
It would break our mother's heart.
Tonight, we're in a family fight.
And yet as kids we'd talk away the night.
But now, we're in a family fight."

The song has been aired on several radio stations and has inspired people to contact Kotzer with their own painful stories. (You can read some on Kotzer's Web site at www.familyfight.com.)

Kotzer says he's highlighting the fights so he can prevent them in other families. The best solution, he says, is for parents to talk to their children about possessions and their wills while they are still able to do so.

"When you meet with your children, tell them that if any of them bought you something in particular, you want them to take it," he says. "If not, let's talk now about other possessions; not when I pass away."

People think their wills will speak for them after their deaths, but intentions can be misconstrued — often leaving wounds that can never be healed.

"It doesn't take a lot to destroy a family, and it can happen in any family — no matter how close they've been," he says.

Kotzer also warns you not to judge your sons' wealth by appearances.

"A lot of kids don't have what you think," Kotzer says. "They have expensive cars and homes, but it may all be mortgaged."

He dealt with exactly that situation. In 1999, a father considered leaving more to the son he thought was most needy — a civil servant with a relatively small salary. The other son was a doctor. But in 2000, the father was glad he had divided his estate evenly. When the stock market crashed, the doctor lost his wealth and declared bankruptcy.

Since wills are often written many years before a person dies, assumptions can be outdated by the time an estate is divided up. In such a case, it would be tragic for the financially distressed brother to have to ask the one with a large inheritance to help him out, Kotzer says.

He also notes that it's worth talking to children about what they will inherit because one may not want an item, while another may. Sometimes, parents divide up rooms of furniture in their homes — perhaps telling one child to take the dining room and the other to take the living room. But if there has been no discussion about the items prior to a parent's death, one child may not want to move a piano, and another may have a wife who doesn't want the furniture, Kotzer says.

To avoid problems, Kotzer suggests talking to children individually and then holding a family meeting so all understand the rationale for decisions. And if a parent wants to treat one child differently, he suggests giving gifts while still living rather than suggesting favoritism in a will.

For more information, "The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It" book and "A Family United, A Family Divided" CD are available at www.family fight.com or 1-877-439-3999.

Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications Inc.