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How to Avoid Estate Litigation — Stick to the 3 Ds

Mueller Prost

April 27, 2020

You might think the enormous transfer of wealth from baby boomers to their heirs—$68 trillion over the next few decades—is causing great joy among beneficiaries. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Along with increasing wealth transfer, there’s also been an increase in estate litigation. Not surprisingly, beneficiaries are not entirely happy with how their parents and grandparents have arranged their financial affairs.

The chief complaint is perceived inequity. Whether it’s between siblings, stepsiblings, second spouses, and children, disagreements about what was left to whom sometimes results in prolonged litigation.

Not only is this type of litigation expensive, it’s also destructive to relationships. To avoid it—and to preserve the value of your estate for your heirs—follow the three Ds:

Decide

You can’t take it with you, so you might as well decide what to do with your wealth, your property, your business, and the rest of your assets. If you don’t choose how to distribute your assets, the government may decide for you. Or, your children, spouse, and other survivors will have to work it out without knowing your intentions.

The most prudent way to decide is to consult your trusted tax, estate, and valuation advisors who can inform you of the best ways to preserve and share your wealth. Take your time, consider their advice, and study the timing and consequences of your estate plan. Start early and keep the conversation going.

Discuss

The time to discuss your estate plan with your heirs is while you’re still around to explain it. Talk through your intentions with your spouse, your children, and any others who will inherit from you. This openness will give everyone the opportunity to ask questions and understand what’s to come. Having your heirs challenge you now is better than having them challenge your decision later in court.

Remember that you are not required to distribute assets evenly among your heirs. Perhaps you believe some need more help or deserve more than others. While not everyone may appreciate this, it’s your prerogative, and explaining your wishes now gives you and your heirs time to deal with the ramifications.

Document

“Dad promised that I would run the company.” “Mom said I would get the beach house.” “Dad and Mom told me that, too.”

These common claims among heirs can be avoided by documenting your wishes in a thorough, written estate plan. Work with a competent attorney to document your intent in as much detail as necessary. Keep current copies of your plan in a safe place and destroy outdated documents.

Be sure your heirs know where to find your will and estate plan. Even better, introduce them to the advisors who helped you craft them so they know where to turn for assistance.

Update as Needed

Review your estate plan regularly, perhaps on your birthday every year. You can update it as often as you like, which might be necessary or desirable if your status changes or your heirs’ status changes. But don’t do so on a whim or after an argument with an heir when your emotions are high. Dispassionate decision making may also help prevent your heirs from claiming you were incompetent at the time you created or changed the plan.

Do you have questions about estate planning and preserving value? Let’s discuss next steps. For more information on this issue, please contact Chris Volz, Partner and Director of Business Valuation and Litigation Services.

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