How To Amicably Resolve Conflicts Faced In Dealing With Inherited Property
Inheritance disputes are a problem that any family can have; be it rich or poor, famous or humble, nuclear or blended. In some instances, even when there is little or no wealth at stake, or no second marriages with children that are “his, hers, and ours,” survivors or beneficiaries will still dispute about a number of issues such as the disposition of sentimental personal possessions, who should be responsible for raising the deceased’s minor children, even who gets the shoes. For that matter inheritance disputes are part and parcel of any family where a member has passed on and the survivors believe there is property or possessions that they are entitled to either as of right or claim by interest. The following are some of the most frequent causes of inheritance disputes:
Purported Inequality: Generally, even where a survivor or beneficiary is included in the bequest, there is a tendency that some survivors still complain that they have been short changed by the deceased. The survivors who often complain are those that feel that they contributed more than the other beneficiaries towards the well-being of the deceased by using their own resources, income, or even selling their assets to care for the deceased. In the event that the beneficiaries are bequeathed in equal shares in the deceased’s testament or will, the one who took care of the deceased will feel that the bequest was not equitable. It is therefore prudent that when one is to prepare their will, they make it categorically clear why they have bequeathed the way they did. The failure to provide such justification in the testament is a recipe for inheritance disputes.
Failure of Intentionality: Every now and then, disputes arise simply as a result of poor communication whether written or verbal among family members and the deceased during his lifetime. We are aware that usually upon one’s demise, the family gathers in cases where the deceased left a will for it to be read out to them. We have also seen or heard of melodramatic cases where the surviving family members tensely gather at the attorney’s office after a relative’s funeral. As the attorney reads, or at the point that he finishes reading the will or trust, some members faint or rise up angrily in protest, claiming “That’s not what the deceased intended!”
This is usually the case where a survivor believes they have been mistakenly or maliciously left out of a bequest. These mistakes or omissions may result from the failure to keep estate plans current with changing tax laws, family circumstances, such as divorces, adoptions or births, the lack of coordination of all inherent property rights of the survivors, and estate documents. Unfair acts either during or after the deceased’s lifetime: Infrequently beneficiaries realize after the death of their loved one that the deceased was subject to financial mistreatment during his lifetime. For example, where the deceased gives powers of attorney access to their accounts for their treatment, welfare among others and the abuse becomes evident upon making an inventory of assets. Or an estate executor or trustee breaches his or her fiduciary duty by mismanaging assets, self-dealing, or overcharging for services.
What can a likely beneficiary do in case they are aggrieved?
The Preventive Measures: The first step is preventive and not remedial. Rightly, the best way to deal with any inheritance disputes is to do everything possible to make sure disputes never happen. For that reason, one ought to rethink how to make sure they have a good estate planning process and understand how it works. It should not be a “once and done” exercise that you do when you get older, or when on your deathbed. Estate planning must be an ongoing exercise that is frequently reviewed and revised to keep pace with changing circumstances in the family dynamics. It also means communicating frequently and clearly with your loved ones in your lifetime instead of heavily relying on a will or any written document that becomes operative when you are lifeless. It is very crucial to identify your potential heir or executors, share with them and the intended beneficiaries your intentions and hopes for their future so as to head off future disputes as to the deceased’s actual intentions and wishes. To avoid and prevent inheritance disputes, one also needs to be conscious of the possibility of disputes, the prevalence of deep-rooted sibling rivalry or known family feuds. Being alert to such instances is an invaluable pointer which will enable your estate planning attorney to ensure your documents are drafted to limit the possibility of contest.
The Possibility of Legal Mediation outside of Court: Secondly, in the event that the deceased did not plan well enough as to prevent the occurrence of inheritance disputes. It is equally important that a trained mediator, often an attorney, is engaged to mediate the affected parties, and forge a memorandum of understanding for them. However, there is no requirement that such an agreement must be reached because it is a voluntary engagement where the parties are in control of the outcome of the mediation, and the mediator is not allowed to provide legal advice to any of the parties. Mediation is every so often a better method for dispute resolution for most family or inheritance disputes given the need for confidentiality. No matter how strong the case or solid the evidence, some inheritance contests are simply not worth taking to courts of law. Therefore, for one who is alert to the potential for protracted litigation that may further threaten family relations beyond repair, it would be more practical to opt for mediation so as to avoid costs of litigation and benefit from the advantages of mediation.
The Option of going to Court: Needless to mention, any aggrieved survivor has the right to go to court to seek relief. However, to do so, the aggrieved survivor must have legal standing as a beneficiary of the deceased, as a creditor or as a legal claimant against the deceased’s estate. This would include anyone who is actually named as a beneficiary in the estate documents as well as anyone who would have a right to the estate if the will were deemed invalid or did not exist.
Thus the deceased may have had every intent in excluding a disobedient, errant survivor from benefiting from the estate, nonetheless if the deceased’s intention is not clearly made in their testament, the aggrieved survivor’s case can be filed and heard in probate cause. To initiate a court hearing, the aggrieved survivor has to provide evidence that the deceased’s testament, be it beneficiary designations, wills, or trusts were somehow improper.
Such evidence could be of medical records documenting a deceased’s mental incapacity at the time of making the will, or proof that the deceased was subject to coercion or fraud in the management or disposition of his assets. On occasion, the necessary evidence could come in the form of a newly discovered will or trust that supersedes an earlier document, or, the last document was not properly executed.