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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Heirs of Wrath - Steinbeck's estate

The estate of writer John Steinbeck is one of many to succomb to family fighting. His heirs, not surprisingly, are scrapping over the estate. I say this is not surprisingly simply because there are so many estate disputes these days, it doesn't shock me anymore.

When I give seminars, I always start off by telling my audience that I'm going to show them how to take a defensive position with their Will. In other words, the idea is to make a Will that deflects trouble by making sure that nothing can be read two ways, there are no gaps in the planning, and everything works together. Sometimes my "defensive position" spiel earns me a look that clearly says the listener thinks I'm looking for trouble where none exists. In fact, lawyers in general have been accused of making things sound worse than they really are so that I can "line my own pockets". If that were my goal, believe me I wouldn't be out there preaching about defensive positions, I'd let everyone make a huge, unrestrained mess of their Wills and then charge a fortune for cleaning it all up.

To convince skeptical listeners of the importance of solid planning and paying an experienced lawyer for a top-notch drafting service, I tell stories about estates that I've seen. I spent many years as an estate litigator before taking my current job, so I've seen my share of family feuds. I tell plenty of those you-won't-believe-what-happened-to-this-poor-unsuspecting-guy stories, and they are all true. Using famous people such as Steinbeck as examples works well.

I believe that in the Steinbeck case, it's a small property that he considered a getaway that is a source of trouble. People might be surprised to know just how often the family cottage, lake lot or time share can be a huge problem. If you own one, PLEASE discuss it with an estate planning lawyer. There are tax implications that you might not have considered, both on your transfer of the property to your kids, and again when they sell or transfer it themselves.

There are also all kinds of logistical nightmares that owners are remarkably naive about; when you leave your cottage to all four of your kids and expect them to "share" it, are you sure that only one will want to use it on the July 1 long weekend? Have you thought about what happens when someone won't pay his/her share of the repairs, or what happens when one wants to build a dock/pave the driveway/put in a satellite dish, and the others won't hear of it?

If this post doesn't convince you that owning a cottage means extra estate planning to ward off serious future disputes among your family, let me tell you a few stories...

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