Sunday, September 21, 2003

Prepare for estate

Planning avoids conflict

By Eileen Alt Powell
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - It was soon after their mother's death in 1996 that Lea Yardum and her sister got into a big fight and stopped speaking to each other.

Yardum and her sister both decided they wanted the cherry wood nightstand from their mother's house, a piece that originally belonged to their grandmother.

"There were much bigger things we could have been arguing about," Yardum, 31, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., said. "But we were both caught up in the emotionalism after my mother died, and that caused things to happen that I would never have dreamed of."

Many families have stories of fights that ensued after a loved one's death, pitting brother against brother over the summer cottage or sister against sister over an antique ring.

Communication vital

Experts say families that communicate - before death, whether verbally or in writing - can avoid such family-wrenching spats.

"It really helps if the parents talk to the kids and ask questions like, 'Do we have anything you really want?' " said attorney Denis Clifford, author of the book Estate Planning Basics. "Then they can write in their will or in a living trust, this thing goes to so-and-so."

A will is the legal document used to pass property on to beneficiaries or to appoint a guardian for minor children. Living trusts are documents used to transfer property through a trust to beneficiaries outside of probate.

Clifford also said that if parents haven't brought up inheritance issues, the children should.

"A lot of this is easier to sort out before someone passes away," he said.

For Yardum and her sister, 44-year-old Gena Wilder, the impasse over grandmother's table ended several weeks later, after Wilder's teenage son cleaned the table with a household disinfectant and destroyed the finish.

"Gena called me," Yardum remembers. "She was laughing and told me what he had done. Soon we were both laughing, then crying."

And talking again.

"The lesson learned for us was, indeed, family comes first - just like my mother always said," said Yardum, who operates a public relations firm with her sister.

Income doesn't matter

Les Kotzer, a Montreal lawyer who specializes in wills and estates, said many people believe disputes only happen in rich families. But he said he's seen them in families at all income levels.

"People don't just fight over money, they fight over memories," he said. "People think, 'I'm not a millionaire so why should I worry?' Then their heirs end up fighting over a watch."

Kotzer, who with law partner Barry Fish wrote The Family Fight - Planning to Avoid It, said even seemingly small things can create hard feelings.

His book is aimed at giving families - both parents and children - tools to work things out amicably through good record keeping, gifts to children and charity, wills and power of attorney documents.

"I try to tell parents in the book, never assume goodwill among your children," Kotzer said. "After death, things happen."

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