Leave An Enduring Legacy, Not A Family Feud

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“We’re dividing all of mother’s things, deciding on her rugs and rings.
I can’t believe what’s happening tonight.
Can’t split a painting on a wall, or share a table in the hall.
I never dreamt that we could fall apart, it would break our mother’s heart.
Tonight, we’re in a family fight and yet as kids we’d talk away the night.
But now, we’re in a family fight.”
Les Kotzer, The Family Fight

Look around you at your wonderful close-knit family. Can you imagine that in 20 years your children might not even be talking to each other? These were siblings who laughed together, played together and shared everything having grown up in the same home. It may seem unthinkable, but if your legacy does matter to you, tidy up your affairs now.

Misunderstandings may arise over the disposition of personal effects and possessions, especially where they have strong sentimental value. Relatively inexpensive objects become the focus of cherished memories. Something as simple as a father’s special chair or a mother’s cherished rug or jewelery can suddenly have connotations as family heirlooms with powerful links to childhoods. Where significant financial assets, real estate and family businesses are involved, the stakes are even higher, and the ensuing bitterness often splits families.

Families have become more fragmented and complex with multiple marriages, and children from different households. This has inevitably led to complicated bequests and a greater potential for conflict. In addition, the combination of the steep drop in stock prices, and the evaporation of millions of naira from real estate values have been sited as having contributed to an increase in acrimony and family feuds sometimes even leading to litigation all over the world.

There are a few issues to consider that can help to minimize potential conflict over family estates:

Do not procrastinate. If you never get around to tidying up your affairs, you may be compounding the difficulty that your beneficiaries will experience after you are gone. It is often a reluctance to address one’s own mortality or a feeling that the time isn’t quite right that causes such procrastination. It is only natural that you should wish for your assets to pass on your death to your loved ones and whomever you choose. By making a will you can ensure that your assets go to those you wish should have them. Ideally, anyone with assets and certainly those with children and other dependants should make a will.

Keeping track of all of your financial information and maintaining it in an organized way is vital. The stress of pawing through someone else’s disorganized records and documents can make an already difficult situation unbearable. Bank statements, insurance documents, tax returns, brokerage accounts, copies of title documents should all be carefully filed and kept safely.

Discuss your options with an experienced estate planning lawyer who will consider the most appropriate estate planning tool for you; from trusts to lifetime gifts and, of course, your will. Make sure your will is current, as this remains one of the most important instruments for the orderly, peaceful disposition of your assets.

It is important that your will is carefully drafted as imprecise, ambiguous language can cause confusion; if sensitive family dynamics have not been considered, relatives may still feud. It can be difficult to determine what is fair and often in an effort to divide assets fairly, parents create what has been referred to as “inadvertent inequality.” Consider this scenario: Chief Peters willed three properties to his three children as follows:

-A block of 4 apartments on Falolu Road in Surulere
-A warehouse on a half-acre plot in Warri
-A 4-bedroom house on an acre plot in Old Ikoyi

The children who inherited the Surulere and Warri properties felt hard done by and have been in court for four years, fighting their sibling over the Ikoyi property. Selecting the right executor or trustee whom you believe can carry out your wishes effectively is of paramount importance. Some people choose qualified family members to serve as executors but if you feel the potential for sibling conflict is real, consider appointing a trusted outsider, or a professional body to perform this important role.
Mr Bamidele left all his assets to his second wife, expecting that she would pass on assets as appropriate to his son. She bequeathed everything to her own children. Her stepson did not receive anything and is going to court. After a remarriage, a trust might be more appropriate for the protection of new beneficiaries such as a second spouse or for children from an earlier marriage.

Some other special circumstances can create potential disagreements in the disposition of assets. For example, an adult child might have spent several years caring for a parent, perhaps even giving up a career to do so; the parent might thus wish to express gratitude with a special monetary gift.

There could be an irresponsible child or one who has an addiction that could decimate an inheritance; some parents may be tempted to disinherit that child. Such a decision should be carefully weighed up as the other siblings will have to live with the angry child long after the parents are gone. A trust vehicle is particularly useful in this regard, as funds can be managed and disbursed by trustees on behalf of a child; it is most suited to accommodate special situations.

Sort out issues relating to title to your assets. Many disputes arise as a result of assets being transferred during a parent’s life out of convenience or other reasons often bypassing the will. An aging parent may require some assistance with their finances and provide a child with access to bank and investment accounts. Setting up such joint accounts may, however, conflict with the provisions of a will.

Some people opt for a gifting strategy and give away certain assets in their lifetime. Observing how beneficiaries handle lifetime gifts can lend important insights as to how future inheritances might be handled.
In addition to a will there is a less formal document that provides critical information for family members in the event of death or incapacitation. In a “letter of instruction” you can include the name of key professionals to be contacted, such as your banker, accountant, insurance agent and stockbroker, and the location of important documents such as wills, insurance policies, title documents. Information about any debt, such as a mortgage can also be included. Even though it does not have any legal authority and is not a will substitute, a letter of instruction serves a very useful purpose in that it clearly articulates your overall intentions for your estate, to your executor.

The loss of a parent is always a trying time and unfortunately it can bring out the worst in siblings at a time when they need their parent’s wise counsel more than ever. With careful thought and planning and most importantly, with professional advice, one can mitigate much of the potential conflict and leave a lasting legacy.

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