When you hear the term “sibling rivalry,” you probably picture kids squabbling over who got the bigger piece of pie or jockeying for a favored seat in the car on a road trip. Those fights may irritate parents, but they are momentary and usually easily resolved. Sibling rivalry doesn’t magically disappear when the siblings grow up. The most devastating disputes often arise between adult siblings, even those old enough to have grown children themselves. Often, the most bitter disagreements and permanent rifts arise out of a probate dispute of a parent’s estate.
Regardless of the level of wealth, most parents hope that it will make their children’s lives better after they are gone. Unfortunately, conflicts over a parent’s estate can destroy the thing that was most precious in the parent’s eyes: family unity.
The best way to preserve that unity is through good communication and a clear, fair, estate plan. If the parent is already deceased, the siblings are left to resolve any disputes on their own.
Many sibling disputes arise out of an unequal distribution of an estate, even when that distribution is for a good reason (like one child lived with and cared for an aging parent, while the other rarely called or visited). Fairly or not, many people conflate the amount of their inheritance with how much their parents loved them. A person who receives a smaller bequest than a sibling may feel angry, hurt, and rejected. With the parent gone, the natural target of those feelings is the sibling who got a larger share.
Sometimes parents casually promise a family heirloom with great sentimental value to multiple children, not realizing the conflict those “promises” will spark after their death. Then there are those parents who intentionally manipulate their children by promising or threatening to withhold an inheritance.
Probate disputes that arise among siblings may also have little or nothing to do with the parents. If one sibling is appointed as personal representative of the estate, other siblings might take issue with how he or she is managing estate business. Situations like that may not be able to be anticipated, but they may be able to be resolved through alternative dispute resolution rather than through the courts.
Often, probate disputes occur between siblings who have long had difficult relationships. But fights over an estate can happen even between siblings who were formerly close, especially if the distribution of the estate feels like a referendum on the parent’s feelings for the children they have left behind.
The best option for probate dispute resolution depends on the circumstances. It makes a difference if the siblings are fighting over control of the family business or mom’s heirloom quilts.
It is helpful if the siblings have the foundation of a good relationship and can keep the big picture in mind—that is, that they could “win” the probate dispute and get the financial outcome they want, but at the cost of their personal relationships. But even where a probate dispute is a continuation of lifelong relationship difficulties, these techniques can help resolve the conflict with less hostility and expense, preserving more of the estate for the people who were intended to inherit it.
Mediation has become increasingly popular for business disputes and divorces, but it can also be valuable for resolving probate disputes among siblings. Mediation involves the parties sitting down with a neutral, trained third party: the mediator. The mediator does not act as a judge. Rather, he or she facilitates discussion, helps frame the issues, promotes communication, and helps guide the parties to a win-win solution.
Mediation is usually less expensive and quicker than probate litigation, and almost always less contentious. If you can’t resolve a dispute with your siblings on your own, try mediation before going to court.
In some families, fights don’t arise over bank accounts but over cherished personal property. Even if an item doesn’t have much financial worth, it may be priceless from a sentimental standpoint. Going through the home of a deceased parent is an emotional exercise to begin with. When it turns out everyone wants mom’s handwritten recipes or dad’s valet chair, things can turn ugly fast.
Many families resolve these issues by letting members alternate choosing an item to keep. You could begin with the eldest and go to the youngest, or let family members draw strips of paper with numbers on them to determine the order of choice. Items that no one chooses can be sold at an estate sale with the proceeds divided equally.
For many families, the biggest asset in an estate may be a personal residence or vacation property. Large assets like those can be difficult to divide. If they can’t be shared, one sibling could buy the others out, but often they don’t have the liquidity to do so. The best option may be to sell the house or property and divide the proceeds. It can be difficult to let go of a family home, but sometimes doing so is the only viable option. Remember though to speak with an attorney or tax advisor before selling any significant assets.
It’s common for parents to name one of their children as successor trustee of a trust or executor of an estate. While there is often merit to having a close family member serve in those roles, it can also cause resentment to have one sibling in control of the estate.
Just because a parent has named a child as trustee or executor doesn’t mean the child has to accept. If all children can agree on an independent fiduciary, such as a trusted attorney or local bank, it may make more sense to have that person or institution serve in the role.
If you are married, you may think of yourself and your spouse as a single-family unit. While that’s generally true, that doesn’t mean that your spouse should be involved in discussions about your parent’s estate.
It’s not always the case, but spouses may be more interested in the inheritance and less interested in preserving ties among siblings. If possible, agree with your siblings to keep your respective spouses out of the discussion. Many probate attorneys can tell tales of formerly close siblings whose spouses drove a permanent wedge between them during the probate process.
Of course, the most effective way to resolve potential probate disputes among siblings is to draft estate planning documents with an eye to preventing disputes from arising in the first place. If you are a parent of adult children, consider making an estate plan as an investment in future family harmony. If you are an adult child of an aging parent, consider discussing estate planning with your parents before it’s too late.