March 2011 "Family Feud"
PLANNING FOR WEALTH & SECURITY
By Jennifer & Jeff Hawkins, Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers
Do all families fight about money when their members die? You certainly remember stories of feuding families, but the attorneys’ experiences at Hawkins Law PC over the past two decades have shown that only a small portion of families fight openly. Most families experience grief and inheritance with grace and dignity. The relatively few fighting families could have avoided most of their problems with simple precautions.
Some fights just develop from personality conflicts. Family members may not want to fight, but some in-laws throw kerosene on smoldering relationships because they don’t share family bonds. Many fights begin when a beneficiary’s spouse sticks his or her nose into business where the nose does not belong. Generally speaking, families fare much better when in-laws keep their opinions about their spouses’ families’ business to themselves.
Most fights result from poor communication among people in weak relationships. Folks who don’t trust each other tend not to speak to each other very often. If one of those people becomes a fiduciary, such as Mom’s guardian, executor, or trustee, his silent treatment of the other family members can attract nightmarish trouble. People that want to know what is happening in a guardianship, estate, or trust often assume that the fiduciary is behaving badly if he operates in secrecy. They expect evil among things done in darkness.
Daylight dispels darkness and distrust. The laws governing guardianships, estates, and trusts require fiduciaries to report how they invest and spend assets and income. Smart fiduciaries keep detailed financial records to show with whom they do business; what they do with income, expenses, and assets; and the purpose of each action. Good trust and estate attorneys help fiduciaries prepare detailed reports and keep communication lines open with beneficiaries and other interested people.
Parents, how can you help prevent your descendants from fighting? We’ve given that question much thought over the past couple of decades. The answer lies in what heritage you pass to your children. Families that value material wealth more highly than rich relationships are most vulnerable to conflict. Families that embrace loving relationships much more than money pass on much more treasure than any trust or estate can hold. Parents’ most enriching conversations can be to insist that children cherish each other regardless of pressures their relationships may experience.
A family built on love and mutual respect is a fortress that corrosive greed and selfishness cannot destroy. That family is very wealthy and secure, regardless of its economic fortunes.
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