My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, May 31, 2021

“My Kids Will Never Fight Over My Estate”

In December 2019, I reviewed the book “Bobby Gets Bubkes: Navigating the Sibling Estate Fight.” In that book, estate lawyer Charles Ticker attempts to explain how to avoid, or at least limit, sibling estate fights when drafting your will. In the comments section to that post, Michael James, who writes the excellent finance blog Michael James on Money, made the following remark:
Sounds like an interesting book. Sadly, I'm guessing most people incorrectly think that their own kids would never squabble in these ways, so they think they don't need to follow the book's advice.
Michael’s “guess” is very perceptive. Based on my experiences over 35 years as an accountant, many parents look at their children and their sibling relationships with rose-coloured glasses or, in some cases, with blinders. As a consequence, they ignore clear warning signals that their children have significant sibling rivalry issues and don’t work well together. In some cases, you can almost predict a sibling estate fight.

Let me be clear. I am not saying every estate has a sibling fight. Many families settle and distribute the estate in accordance with the will and their parent’s wishes with little acrimony. However, this is far from the case in many estates, as human nature can turn ugly when there is money and sentimental items at stake, especially where sibling issues have reared their heads during the parents’ lifetimes.

Today, I am going to list factors in no particular order that can cause siblings to squabble over an estate.

Why siblings squabble over an estate

  • Greed – Very simply, money causes some people to lose their minds and perspective. This can destroy sibling relationships.
  • Grabbers – I have seen this many times. One child “grabs,” or takes, items before the will is considered, or even ignores the wishes of the will, which starts a spiral of hurt and mistrust among the siblings.
  • Sentimental items – Children often fight over these items. In many cases, this issue can be avoided if the parent simply provides a specific item-by-item allocation in their wills of sentimental items such as jewelry. Parents can also cause huge sibling issues when they promise or tell a child they will receive a certain item and then do not specifically allocate that item to the child in their will—or worse yet, allocate the item to another child. Parents: always make your will consistent with what you have told your children, or communicate the change to them.
  • Grandchildren – There is no right or wrong answer here, but parents really need to think through how to allocate their estate when one of their children does not have children of their own or each family has a different number of grandchildren. Is the estate split equally by family? And if giving money directly to grandchildren—does each grandchild receive the same amount, or is the allocation equal by family and a grandchild with no siblings receives more than a grandchild with siblings?
  • Business assets – When parents leave a business to one sibling and equalize other siblings in cash or investments of equal value, one would think they have accomplished peak fairness. Yet some businesses explode after the parents die, making the child that took over the business very wealthy. Alternatively, the business may stumble or even fail, leaving that child in far worse financial situation than their siblings. Either way, the disparity in financial position creates acrimony. And it’s just one specific nuance of conflict in family business succession.
  • Asset in one child’s name – Parents often put assets in a child’s name for probate or tax planning purposes. But as the saying goes, ownership is nine-tenths of the law. Some siblings may depart from the parents’ assumption that they will act just as trustees of that asset for their siblings. They make think of themselves as the actual owner of the asset.
  • No parents, no buffers - One comment from Charles’ book I found truly relevant was “that once the parental referees are out of the picture, the gloves come off.” I have seen this so often. Parents really do act as buffers and referees for their children. Without a referee, disagreements can break out.
  • Spouses and in-laws – Spouses and in-laws in the ear of one child stoking their belief that the parents divided assets unfairly have caused many a sibling fight.

Parents: Have that discussion

Many of the above issues are human nature, which can’t be avoided entirely. But parents need to consider all the above possibilities when drafting a will. Readers of my blog will know that I am a huge proponent of discussing your will to a full or partial extent with your family and explaining your intentions. I think this can sometimes avoid or minimize sibling estate issues.

It is sad that sibling estate fights are even a topic, but they do unfortunately often become an issue. Parents, my suggestion to you is consider these issues, get good estate planning advice, consider a family meeting, and take off your rose-coloured glasses when planning your estate.

The content on this blog has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in general terms and should be seen as broad guidance only. The blog cannot be relied upon to cover specific situations and you should not act, or refrain from acting, upon the information contained therein without obtaining specific professional advice. Please contact BDO Canada LLP to discuss these matters in the context of your particular circumstances. BDO Canada LLP, its partners, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability or duty of care for any loss arising from any action taken or not taken by anyone in reliance on the information on this blog or for any decision based on it.

Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation.

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