Family Conflict Among Siblings and Cousins: Clarity is Key

October 19, 2016

By: C. Arthur Robinson, II

In the current financial times in which we live, where often times  the structure of the family is complex, it has become increasingly prevalent that siblings or half-siblings and on some occasions, cousins will get into significant conflicts concerning who will benefit from the estate of an elderly parent or relative and what the benefit will be.  While it is common place that parents will name their children as beneficiaries that is not always the case. Often in blended family situations there will be his/hers/our children and in addition, for many families, children are not part of the mix because a couple may not have children or there may be predeceased children who could or could not leave survivors. It is therefore absolutely essential in drafting for these more complex family situations that clear and unequivocal language be used. 

While it is certainly the case that on occasion families will come into conflict for a variety of reasons, instruments that are clear and unequivocal, properly executed at the appropriate time with proper funding for trust and other estate planning being properly done can substantially reduce conflicts and can achieve the results that are reflective of the intent of an estate planning clients.

It is often the case in blended family situations, that parents or step-parents would have a different view of who should take what from their estate as opposed to the estate of their spouse. It is certainly also the case that in extended families, it is altogether common that some nieces or nephews would be more involved with, and important to, an estate planning client than are others.  It is therefore vitally important in order to reflect the intent of our clients that we achieve clarity of what they intend. That clarity has the unintended and very beneficially side effect that if an instrument is clear and unequivocal enough, conflicts can be avoided between siblings, half-siblings and other collateral relatives because everyone knows the benefit that accrues to them and in some cases, even the rationale for those benefits.

It is also true, that distribution which are not in proportion among a given class of beneficiaries can create significant conflicts, which can be avoided by a combination of proper drafting and appropriate communication in the form of letter to beneficiaries, or other expression by the estate planning client, that explains the reasons for their decisions.  While it takes greater care and specificity to make the documents clear, unequivocal and to express intent where that is appropriate, it can avoid very costly and extremely divisive litigation among members of a family which will often echo down generations and create significant family estrangement which is long lasting.

We at Wolcott Rivers Gates are familiar with these issues and can assist you in trying to avoid them, in so far as that is able to be done at the stage of the creation of an estate plan.