For the Love of Family: 6 Tales of Estate Planning Gone Wrong

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We won’t sugarcoat it: Estate planning can be tricky business.

If you attempt it, that is. Incredibly, many people haven’t even gotten that far.

According to a 2014 Rocket Lawyer survey, 64% of Americans don’t currently have a will—and 55% of them have children—leaving the security and financial well-being of millions totally unprotected.

Without a document detailing how you want your estate divided and distributed, your assets could end up in the hands of a relative you haven’t spoken to in years, or your teenager could have access to a fat bank account before she has even the first clue about how to manage money wisely.

But don’t just take our word for it.

These six legal pros from across the country witness these kinds of estate planning disasters every day.

To illustrate just how important is it to stay on top of your game, we’ve asked them to recount their clients’ most egregious estate planning mistakes—and share advice for how you can sidestep the same land mines.

Estate Mistake #1: Naming an Executor Who Doesn’t Play Fair

“When you’re dealing with families, things can get complicated—quick. We see so many cases come through with unresolved feuds between siblings. It’s one of the most common causes of litigation over an estate.

I handled one case where a client’s sister had been named the executor of their father’s estate, despite the fact that she lived in a different state than both her father and brother, whom she’d been fighting with for years.

Ideally, in a case like that, the parents would have named an objective, independent personal representative—like another family member or a trusted friend—as their estate’s executor, instead of one of the kids.

But that didn’t happen here.

After the father passed away, our client started to take care of a few things around the house, not realizing he didn’t have the legal right to do so. Once his sister arrived, there were accusations about items being removed—and a long legal battle ensued.

Ultimately, even though the estate was to be divided evenly, our client’s sister had all of the decision-making power to decide how that happened, so long as the monetary value was equal. There is no way to challenge her decisions in court, and we’re still waiting to see whether or not the siblings can put their feelings aside and divide the estate fairly.

To avoid contentious situations like this, we counsel clients to consider the complicated dynamics between the family members named in a will. If there’s even a possibility of an estate causing fights or damaging relationships, we encourage them to look for an independent personal representative who can settle things fairly.”

—Tom Gisriel, attorney at Pessin Katz Law, Baltimore, Md.

RELATED: DIY or Not: Wills and Estate Planning

  • Meredith E

    What about moving to a different state? I currently have a valid will, reviewed every 5 years, for the state in which I reside but I plan to move within the next 18 months. Will I have to have the will drawn up again?

    • matt wilkinson

      It would be extremely wise on your part to have the will re-written for the state in which you will be living. Little nuances can have a big impact on your will if you move.