The Battle of Wills: It’s All in the Family
Families. You have to love them. Or not. From a purely legal perspective, when it comes to trusts they’re complicated at best and utterly dysfunctional at worst.
Here at Trust Law Partners, experience has taught that estate litigation mostly involves money and family dynamics expressed in a perceived unequal distribution of inheritance. Multiple marriages. Kids from different parents. New and younger spouses. Sibling competition. Drug abuse. Jail time. Religious fervor. They’re all ingredients in the savory soup we as trust attorneys are served on a regular basis. Throw in poorly written estate planning documents and you have a recipe for a true mess amid our effort to obtain the unique justice each client wants.
Seemingly, every family member has a different story, conspiracy theory, motivation or factoids to explain the reasons why so-and-so got this and they did not. Unfortunately, the one or two people who can explain the whole mess are typically deceased.
When it comes to wills or trusts, families and money do not mix.
Where money is transferred among parties as part of a contact, civil law presumes equal bargaining power and legal representation among all parties. The process is typically deliberate and rational, and everyone usually has a good idea of what they’re doing.
But a trust or will is not a contract. It is mostly a gift through the transmission of wealth to the next generation. There is no inherent fairness. It is often a well-kept secret until someone dies. And the one creating the will or trust—the grantor—is the only person with any real power. Complicating matters, the grantor is often influenced by emotion, misinformation, friends and family members, spouses— just about anyone with an opinion. They can also be old, demented, frail or vulnerable, and incapable of making reasonable, well-informed decisions.
Starting to see why estate litigation is so complex?
It gets worse. In our experience, family members are prone to doing things they would never dream of doing to a complete stranger. Deep down, families are people. And people have motivations that are often at odds with being a good family member. These motivations can compel them to insist they’re more deserving of an inheritance than others:
I need the money. My siblings are already rich and I can use it more. I took care of Mom in her old age and should be compensated. I helped my parents invest their money…now I need some. Mom’s new partner does not deserve all of that money and neither does his kid. My brother was in jail and will waste his money on drugs or gambling. My sister is not religious and that was important to Mom and Dad. My sister is a loser. She killed my mother with neglect while taking care of her. Mom was always mean to me. Dad was always hard on me.
The list goes on and on. And Trust Law Partners has seen it all.
Here’s what the law says. Money transferred though a trust or will does not need to be done so fairly. The law only requires that the person making the estate plan be competent and not unduly influenced. It’s just that simple. Now, if only people were the same.
Nor does the law take into account family dynamics. If the grantor is mentally incompetent, being improperly swayed, manipulated through dishonestly, or deprived of their own free will, the law will step in. Otherwise, there are no legal constraints on families creating a raucous, spiteful free-for-all in their quest to get what they want.
If you’re thinking about contesting a trust or will, and believe there might be bad family dynamics in the offing, your best bet is to seek legal counsel—such as Trust Law Partners—and rise above the fray.