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Don’t Leave Your Planning Up to a Coin Toss

A headline-grabbing story last week in the New York Post offers a good reminder of the need to be crystal clear in certain estate planning situations to avoid drawn-out legal battles.

According to reports, two siblings are engaged in a dispute over how to divide up an inheritance that they are to split from their uncle. The two men are the nephews of David Barrett, a well-known Manhattan interior designer who passed away in 2008 at the age of 85. Per the terms of Barrett’s estate planning, his $5.6 million estate is set to be split between the two men.

However, the division of those assets into two is apparently not going smoothly.To help determine how the various assets are to be split, an executor of the estate apparently recommended that a coin toss be used. For example, to determine ownership of a painting valued at around $45.000 a coin toss was performed, with the younger brother winning.

This did not sit well with the older sibling, who has reacted to the loss by making aggressive accusations against his sibling and executors in addition to filing a lawsuit challenging the distribution plan. The most recent suit has put a hold on the process, slowing the ultimate distribution and preventing any named heirs from receiving property from the estate.

In defending the lawsuit and his concern about the distribution plan, the older brother explained “This case is about more than my share of my uncle’s estate. It is about my uncle, his legacy, his reputation, and his family.”

Planning Lessons
All those who follow high-profile estate planning matters appreciate that feuds of this nature are not rare. When significant assets are at stake, all those involved are frequently willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure the matter is handled to their liking. Unfortunately, there are often no winners in these situations, as the drama often causes significant delay and enormous resources spent on the legal battle itself. There are various lessons that can be taken from this Barrett story:

Be As Specific As Possible – While it is impossible to specifically list every single item big or small, it is usually worthwhile to explicitly indicate where every valuable item will go. This is particularly true when an estate is divided between various parties who may disagree on who is to get what piece of personal property.

Understand the Personalities Involved – Certain friends and family members may be a more “hot headed” than others. Conflict is more likely to be prevented with those unique personalities are accounted for.

Prevent Surprises – Dispute often arises when one party is unprepared for some outcome. By having clear discussions with heirs ahead of time, all parties are able to come to terms with how the affairs will be handled This may prevent a knee-jerk, defensive reaction when unexpectedly confronted by an unfavorable part of the plan.

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