Family dysfunction is a universal phenomenon. Many families are host to their quirks and strained relationships to begin with. In the event of a family death, however, dysfunction that has remained dormant for many years can emerge and give rise to serious disputes that end in litigation and the disintegration of family relationships.
The Family War: Winning the Inheritance Battle is an innovative and entertaining book by Jordan Atin, Barry Fish, and Les Kotzer. It discusses family dynamics and the way that dysfunction can intensify after a death in the family, absent adequate estate planning strategies.
The book's authors provide insight into what a family war looks and feels like, based on their observations during many years of professional experience. Estate litigation is unlike other civil lawsuits in that there is much more than money at stake. Family relationships can deteriorate to the point where the recovery of the family unit is no longer an option.
With respect to family dysfunction, there are issues that can be adequately addressed by an estate plan, but there are some that may be unavoidable. It can be of great assistance to talk with family members, perhaps even at a lawyer-facilitated family meeting, about what is to happen in the event of a death. If there are specific keepsakes that you intend to be left with certain individuals, it is important that this is communicated to them, and that any unreasonable expectations are understood and, if necessary, dealt with appropriately.
Estate planning can go a long way to help manage family relationships. Further, communicating the estate plan to those who will be affected by it can manage beneficiary expectations, and prevent disputes over what was truly intended by the testator.
One of the greatest lessons that we can learn from the dynamics of other families is that there are always some that are worse off than we are. For example, one story told within the Family War describes what happened when one man died without a will and with seven children. One child unilaterally decided to retrieve from his father's house the deceased's prized antlers, taken from a deer that he had hunted many years earlier. When the other children discovered that the antlers were highly valuable, they sued their brother in an attempt to have a court declare that they all owned one-seventh of the antlers. The six children were successful, but their brother refused to return the antlers. He ended up serving time in jail due to his violation of the court order.
When most people think about estate litigation, they imagine multi-million dollar estates rather than a dispute over deer antlers, however valuable they may have been. Especially when dysfunction is present, family members will litigate over almost anything, including assets of limited value. To incur the costs, both financial and emotional, of litigating some of such family disputes may not always be obvious, but it is the human element of the dispute that drives this litigation forward.
If a battle emerges after a death in the family, there are ways that they can be better managed than in court. Estate mediation is a popular option for families that are willing to compromise in order to maintain their relationships with one another.
According to another book, Seven: How many days of the week can be extraordinary?, there are two facts of life: family dysfunction and the limitations to the time that we have to live. In total, the average individual is born with 30,000 mornings to enjoy. At age 26, we still have 20,000 mornings and, at 54, we have 10,000 mornings left. Family dysfunction is what it is, and there is little that we can do to change this fact of life. However, there is much that can be done to manage dysfunction and allow us to enjoy the limited time that we have. Implementing an estate plan can facilitate enjoyable mornings, without worries that family dysfunction will reign supreme after our deaths.
*Ian Hull and Suzana Popovic-Montag are partners at Hull & Hull LLP, an innovative law firm that practices exclusively in estate, trust and capacity litigation. To watch more Hull & Hull TV episodes, please visit our Hull & Hull TV page.