A will isn't just part of a parent's estate plan: it's an attorney's paradise.
Sure, it's someone's stated intention for his assets, but it's also a great opportunity for dysfunctional families to air their grievances one last time. If you don't hand your will to an attorney or an advisor, it gives siblings, spouses and other heirs an opportunity to accuse each other of tampering and duplicity. Even if the will is in safe hands, it has to head to probate court where it has to get the approval of all of the family members named in it.
That leaves the door open for disputes and years-long delays. That potential makes Jay Freireich, an estate planning attorney for Brach Eichler LLC in Roseland, N.J., a very happy man.
“I'm not going to go home to my wife and say, 'You're not going to believe this, but I just did a will for somebody and they left everything to their kids,'" Freireich says. "It's just not exciting. But when you have two brothers fighting over their dad's estate, and one got less than the other and they didn't think that was right -- or when you get the kids from the first marriage versus the second wife who comes in and the old man leaves everything to the second wife, who dies soon thereafter and now the stepkids get everything and the kids don't -- I just love this stuff.”
When a will is drafted and assets are evenly distributed, Freireich's job can get fairly boring. Most don't typically require his involvement beyond the planning stages. Even when there are minor conflicts involved, Freireich notes that the vast majority of those cases end in confidential settlements in which no one admits liability. However, when a parent either plays favorites or doesn't make his or her intentions clear, that can result in disaster after he or she passes away.
"I had a mother-daughter conflict, I've had brother-brother, most of them are the second-marriage wife and the kids from the first marriage,” Freireich says. “I had a case where the kids from the first marriage and the second wife were fighting over a coffee table, and we actually tried the case. It wasn't like a special coffee table: it was like a $1,000 coffee table.”
“We won, by the way, and it cost her a lot more than $1,000 to litigate this case,” he adds.
So what do you do to prevent a spouse, child or sibling from disputing a will?