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How to Divide an Inheritance Fairly to Preserve Family Harmony

Posted by Daniel J. Eccher, Esq. | Feb 09, 2024

Stories about will disputes or disinherited relatives have been fodder for plays and movies for years (e.g., "Knives Out"). Perhaps some of these stories inspire you to leave an inheritance that will keep your loved ones happy - or at least keep them away from each other's throats! 

The simple act of considering who will inherit your property and exactly how you will pass it on could reduce conflicts. If you're struggling to find a solution, LWP&E can guide you through the process with care and compassion. Before you seek professional help, put some thought to your options for fair asset distribution.

Factors to Consider in Fair Asset Distribution

It's not always possible to give your assets to everyone equally or appease everyone. Certain situations can prevent an even asset division, such as:

  1. Your relationships with potential heirs, including any with special needs, which could involve eligibility for Medicaid or MaineCare or other forms of public assistance.
  2. Your family members' individual financial situations. For instance, if you have children, some may have benefited from gifts or loans from you during your lifetime.
  3. Contributions and sacrifices your beneficiaries, such as any caregivers, have made. 

When you see the bigger picture, the issues become clearer, opening your options for a fair asset distribution. 

Sparing the Grief and Keeping the Peace

In healthy relationships, occasional conflict is normal. Whether you fully resolve a disagreement or not affects your future relationships. You might not be able to avoid every bump in the road, but at least considering these issues may ease your estate planning. 

Discuss your plans: You may want to hold open, honest conversations with loved ones, including any of your children. Some parents don't want to mention their money for fear that their children won't work or be productive. Our actions tend to reflect our beliefs. Emphasize your views and values about money, whether you save, spend freely, or donate.

If your lines of communication with some loved ones have closed, seek to re-open them—even if it seems hard. Aim to resolve any disagreements but understand that time might be needed to heal some wounds. Also, try not to make decisions rooted in guilt or shame. 

After you've talked, meet to discuss your plans and answer questions. 

No-contest clauses: To prevent disputes, some wills or trusts include "no contest" clauses. As a result, whoever contests a will or a trust will be “disinherited,” or lose their rights to any inheritance. 

A no-contest provision may prevent claims of undue influence: it shows you can make your own decisions without pressure from others. But your plans could go awry if a no-content clause is unclear.  

Undue influence: This occurs when someone persuades or harms another to act against their best interests. Ill or incapacitated people can be more vulnerable. For example, an adult son or daughter who cares for a disabled parent could isolate their parent from friends and other relatives. In poor health, the parent might not fight the child's influence. When the parent dies, they may have left everything to one caretaker, leading other family members to dispute the estate plan. 

Getting legal help with your estate plan, then discussing it with multiple loved ones, can reduce the risk of undue influence.

Building a trust: If it suits your estate plan, a trust can protect your assets and ensure that they're divided as you wish. Trustees (people you appoint to administer a trust) would oversee the distribution. 

Over time, one should adapt one's estate plan to different circumstances. You can also change your mind about your beneficiaries. To ensure it reflects your current situation and desires, review your estate plan regularly. 

Strengthen Your Relationships with a Thoughtful Inheritance Plan

A fair inheritance plan is a gift to those you love: it protects them and strengthens your bonds. Taking control now may help prevent conflicts and safeguard your legacy and your family ties. 

We would be happy to advise you about fair asset distribution strategies. For personalized guidance, contact LWP&E online or call (207) 377-6966.

About the Author

Daniel J. Eccher, Esq.

Daniel J. Eccher, Esq. is the Managing Shareholder at Levey, Wagley, Putman & Eccher, P.A., in Winthrop, Maine. Dan's favorite problem to solve is helping clients figure out how to afford long-term care while having something left for their family.

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