Thursday, February 19, 2004

Memories spark inheritance hassles

By Mark Coomes
Louisville Courier-Journal

The most populous generation in U.S. history is in the process of inheriting the greatest fortune in the annals of humankind - more than $7 trillion by 2040.

Rest assured that baby boomers, a notoriously acquisitive and litigious lot, wouldn't permit such a staggering sum to be redistributed without an occasional fight.

Yet with few exceptions, the most ferocious battles won't be waged over dollars and cents. For many boomers, even some filthy rich ones, the transfer of Mom and Dad's worldly goods is not about the money.

It's about the memories.

It's about tea servings and photo albums, chifforobes and wedding rings.

It's a prizefight where the combatants care more about the belt than the purse. Just ask Tawana Edwards, who in 22 years as an estate lawyer has refereed more bloody bouts than she cares to remember.

"The greatest amount of tears, arguments and confusion are over the personal possessions," says Edwards, principal partner in a trust company. "It's over Mom's china or Dad's golf clubs. The fights are ugly, and they split families forever."

Such domestic disputes are, for the most part, as unnecessary as they are unfortunate. Last rites beget family fights when parents die without a well-planned, well-executed will.

"Dying without a will - or with a poorly drawn will - can produce some truly awful results for your family," says Emily Ledford Lawrence, also a partner at the trust firm. "Money and property wind up in the wrong hands or in unexpected hands."

Lawrence remembers one seasoned citizen who promised her grandfather clock to almost everybody who came to visit - then left it in her will to somebody she hadn't promised it to.

A far worse example is that of a father who remarries and leaves everything to his second wife, trusting that when she dies, she will leave a fair share of his assets to his children by Wife No. 1.

Au contraire.

In a typical case cited in the book The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It (Continental Atlantic; $19.95), a New York man's stepmother not only left him no money or property, she bequeathed his mother's family heirlooms to her children.

The consequences of such mistakes loom larger than ever these days.

Considering the stupendous amount of money at stake, it is hard to believe that the fiercest and most frequent battles revolve around things. But there's a simple reason for that.

"Money divides very easily," Lawrence says. "Grand pianos do not."

Whether your share is a little or a lot, a vast fortune in money and property is in the midst of changing hands. Poor estate planning can make that transfer difficult and, for some families, even destructive.

These difficulties can be mitigated, if not avoided altogether. The first step: Hire an experienced estate lawyer to draft a comprehensive will.

•  A lawyer will ensure that you make a thorough list of your assets and possessions, a critical and commonly overlooked first step.

•  Lawyers strongly recommend aging parents ask their children what things they want most, then make a handwritten addendum to the will that bequeaths the most financially or sentimentally valuable items to specific people.

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