The death of a loved one is almost always going to bring to the surface complicated and potentially long-standing issues within family relationships. This is perhaps never more the case than when the deceased individual’s estate plan takes family members and beneficiaries by surprise, forcing a situation in which those complicated feelings come out in ways no one would prefer but everyone is suddenly forced to engage.
Inheritance disputes can have their roots in all kinds of situations, but the most immediate causes are likely to be the perception that some family members are treated unfairly, or that others are to receive inheritance money or property seemingly disproportionate to their roles in the deceased’s life.
Regardless of grief and emotions, inheritance disputes that happen to arise must be handled in a way that is both mutually agreeable to the surviving family members/beneficiaries as well as keeps with the deceased’s wishes. Unsurprisingly, this can be an extremely complicated process, which is why many families opt to bring in an unbiased outside party in the form of a licensed mediator. The mediator’s job is to help the family remain intact and arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. This helps family members share their concerns in a productive manner, and often leads to disputes being settled much more quickly and at less expense than they would be if the dispute made its way into the legal system.
Perhaps the best way to handle inheritance disputes is by attempting to prevent them before they arise. Although this is not possible in every situation, it’s likely that many inheritance disputes may be prevented through making family members and other beneficiaries aware of your plan while you’re still alive. Since the element of surprise is often such a key factor in disputes, removing it can help your beneficiaries understand your wishes and your plan as well as the reasoning behind them.
If you and your family are having trouble understanding and agreeing to the terms of a loved one’s estate plan, hopefully you can agree to attempt to solve your disputes through mediation. There are potentially many creative resolutions to such disputes than may benefit all interested parties. An experienced estate planning attorney will direct you to a skilled mediator and will also be available in the event that litigation becomes necessary.
Steven K. Hardy is Chair of the Corporate, Tax and Estate Planning Practice Group at BoltNagi PC, a full-service business law firm based on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.