How to Handle Sibling Rivalry Over Family Money and Avoid Probate Court

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Mary Rose is more than $100,000 in debt to attorneys since her 59-year-old brother, Robert Nabity, reportedly placed their mother in the Omaha, Neb., House of Hope locked Alzheimer's facility two and a half years ago. “Even though my brother and his well-connected attorney are violating state statutes and guardian responsibility guidelines there have been no consequences, because the judge does nothing about it,” said Rose, who works as a nurse in Grand Island, Neb.

Since she was separated from her 83-year-old mother, the 43-year-old says she does not have an accurate accounting of her family’s assets and belongings. “About $40,000 in bonds have been redeemed, a life insurance policy was cashed in and a $20,000 policy was signed over to a funeral home even though mother’s burial arrangements were already paid for,” Rose says. “There’s more, but I don’t have an inventory.”

That’s because Rose claims her brother has disclosed only inaccurate and incomplete financial information.

“Mother was happy living with me in my home until he kidnapped her in 2012,” Rose says. “She had given me medical power of attorney in 1998, and now I have limited access to see her.”

Nabity through his attorney Lisa Line declined to comment about the case PR12-1422, which is venued in the Douglas County Courts.

“I am allowed to visit my mother every Tuesday between 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., but I have to pay a monitor $50 an hour to supervise my visits with her,” says Rose, who lives five hours away by car roundtrip. “This is hard for my children, because they are in school until 4 p.m., so by the time we get there, it’s 6:30 and then we have to drive back for school the next morning.”

When it comes to wills, trusts and probate court, brothers and sisters can become the worst of enemies without best practices in place.

“Disputes among siblings that wind up in probate court are common in many families but especially when strong feelings of entitlement are not tempered with attitudes of gratitude, respect and love for one another,” says Sam Sugar, founder of the Miami-based Americans Against Abusive Guardianship.

As a result, aging parents often suffer the most when their adult family members are at war.

“My poor mother is locked up, isolated, drugged and kept away from her family, friends and the outside community," Rose says. "There is no medical research to back up or support that this is the best way to care for the elderly."

One way to avoid disputes over inheritance or family wealth is by spelling out wishes in a trust document.

"In addition to that, parents should make their intentions well known to all children well in advance," said Reno Frazzitta , founder and president of Secure My Funds, a retirement planning services firm.

To help families manage wealth, Merrill Lynch offers ten best practices, called Wealth Continuity and Family Unity. “By implementing these best practices, a family can understand who has a collaborative mindset and who may not want to participate,” says Michael Liersch, head of behavior finance at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. “The key is to go into these discussions with a nonjudgmental, open mind so that all perspectives can be heard, which may facilitate the information flow needed to make the best decisions possible.”

Among the practices are developing skillful communication, creating accountability and establishing a collaborative advisory team.

“The practice of creating a collaborative advisory team would be most related to the notion of helping a family member with a particular dysfunction,” Liersch says. “Pulling in the right expert for advice and guidance can help a family make the right decision for a loved one they are concerned about.”

Dysfunction among family members is often created by envy, jealousy and greed.

"The fires of sibling rivalry stoked with the flammable fuel of cash are almost impossible to extinguish," Sugar says. "Sadly, when lawyers become involved, it gets very ugly."

— Written for MainStreet by Juliette Fairley

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