Financial interests and dealing with the emotional loss of a loved one can combine to create tension, dispute, and destruction in family relationships. Family members fight. Siblings feel hurt by the terms of a parent’s will. Someone feels a strong need for a sentimental personal effect. Family members feel pressure from their own financial problems and look to their inheritance as a solution.
Probate can be lengthy – in many cases it may last well over a year. Complex cases may last even longer. Managing family dynamics during this time period can be difficult.
This article is designed to provide some insight for executors and other family members on how they can avoid and diffuse these issues during the probate process.
Set Expectations Early
This should begin even before you have the will admitted to probate and someone is appointed executor. Speak to family members and beneficiaries. They often have expectations for immediate access to money or property. They may have expectations that are contrary to the terms of the decedent’s will. Explain the probate process and timeline so that those expectations are realistically tied to the time needed to settle the estate.
Partial early distributions is an area where a dispute often arises. Expectations should be set regarding whether there will be any early distributions. It is quite common for beneficiaries who are not in a stable financial situation to request loans or advances. How will you handle those requests? How will you respond when other beneficiaries find out? Set the expectations – and set them for everyone.
You should also set expectations regarding communication and the exchange of information during the probate process. How will you communicate? How often? Simple estates may not require frequent updates while more complex matters may dictate frequent, even weekly, updates.
The human mind has an amazing ability to develop conspiracy theories when left with little information and the time to do so. You should communicate with beneficiaries and family members often. The more complete and accurate the information they have is, the less likely their mind will wander and fill in any gaps with suspicion.
You set the expectations for the probate process and timeline early on. You should communicate frequently with other family members about where you are in the process. If there are any issues that may cause a problem or delay, communicate them as soon as you can. If the expectations for the timeline change, then update them.
Some family members may have previously had access to estate property that they will not have access to during the probate process. The executor may need to change the locks, secure the property, or otherwise take possession of assets until the probate process is complete. Communicate that fact early on so that it is not a surprise to some accustomed to having use or access to the property.
Some family members may have relied upon assistance from the decedent – financial or otherwise. You should communicate with those family members and determine whether the estate can continue that support and how it might go about doing so. You should also make sure that other beneficiaries or family members are aware of any arrangements you make so they are not surprised to find out about any support the estate provides.
You should discuss how decisions will be made as well as who is responsible for making which decisions. The executor is ultimately responsible for all decisions regarding the estate, however, there may be room for input from other family members. Allowing family members to participate in the decision making process so they have an opportunity to be heard and feel like they have a voice can go a long way in avoiding conflict.
Frequent communication will not only help prevent beneficiaries and family members from negative speculation but it will also allow you to anticipate potential conflict so that you can act to de-escalate it quickly.
You should be aware of the expectations of beneficiaries and family members. You should also be aware of the family dynamics and how that might play into any disputes that might arise during the probate process.
- Is someone expecting to inherit under the will but the decedent left them little or nothing?
- Was someone promised a personal item but it is not written in the will?
- Is a family member in a financial bind and likely to request an advance or loan?
- Are tensions already high between certain beneficiaries from some long simmering dispute? Is that likely to trigger a fight during probate?
- Are there established roles or pecking orders within the family that might affect their interaction during the probate process?
- Are discussions best handled as a group or one on one?
- Are there any items of particular sentimental value that might “disappear” if you don’t take immediate action?
- Does a beneficiary or family member have a sentimental attachment to a particular personal effect or household item?
You should also be aware of your power and authority as executor. What does the will say about how to handle disputes among beneficiaries? How much discretion were you afforded in distributing personal property under the will? What factors did the decedent instruct you to consider when making decisions regarding distributions?
Understanding the amount of discretion you are allowed as well as what factors you must consider when making decisions regarding distributions can provide you with a foundation to explain your decisions to family members that might otherwise question those decisions. Providing a sound, logical, explanation for a decision can help prevent any argument from escalating.
Use Your Advisers Wisely
The professionals advising you during the probate process are there to provide objective advice that is unfettered by the emotion that arises between squabbling family members. Use this to avoid and diffuse potential conflict.
Do you know there is going to be a delay coming up? Family members might view the news coming directly from you with suspicion or a lack of understanding. Having the attorney handling the probate inform the family members and explain the reasons for the delay might be more acceptable to other family members.
Tax issues preventing a closure of the estate? Have the CPA talk to your family members to explain why there is a delay and the importance of handling the matter appropriately.
These professionals act as an objective authority to explain the basis of the decision that might otherwise cause conflict. You can and should use them to shield yourself from taking the blame from other family members.
The stress of dealing with loss of a loved one combined with the desire and expectation of new wealth from settling the estate can make family members act in ways they might nor ordinarily act. A little thought, a little planning, and a lot of communication can go a long way towards ensuring your family can get through the probate process without irreparably damaging your familial relationships.
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