Whenever a celebrity dies, you can almost guarantee that there will soon be headlines about the “ugly” estate fight brewing between his or her relatives. Just in the last year we heard these sorts of stories about the pop icon Prince, blues legend B.B. King, and conservative culture warrior Phyllis Schlafly.
But here’s a little secret. Just as the grocery store checkout line tabloids would like us believe, “Celebrities, they’re just like us!” Every estate dispute is ugly whether there are celebrities involved or not.
For example, did you know that one of the biggest verdicts in Virginia last year was in an estate dispute? A restaurant owner’s son and a former employee had a $13.7 million fight, and none of the people involved would be considered a celebrity. Regular people are just as likely to fight over estates as celebrities or wealthier families.
So Much Is Already Lost
A distinguished professor at Columbia University, Wallace Stanley Sayre, once quipped that “Academic politics [are] the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” This lead to the formulation of what is known as Sayre’s Law, which suggests that in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.
In the estate planning world, this would mean that the bitterest disputes arise in the smallest estates. This is interesting to think about, particularly when you have years of experience drafting and administrating estates, so you have plenty of examples to think back on. But it also suggests that the value of an estate is purely monetary. It’s not.
The most valuable part of most estates is what is missing from them: the person that has died. Family and friends have lost far more than they will ever gain by fighting over an estate. But grief does funny things to people. Sometimes it seems as if people fight because they think of it as a way to bring themselves closer to the person who has died.
Planning Is the Best Protection Against Disputes
The best way to prevent a bitter estate battle is to put an estate plan into place, and to be open with your loved ones about what the plan includes. Take it from someone with experience dealing with estate disputes, your time and attention are the greatest gifts you can bestow.
If you have a large estate, and you want to minimize your estate taxes, you are going to want to start to gift money while you are still alive. This can be a good indicator of how other gifts will be received, and can help you refine your overall estate plan.
It is also a good idea to pass on items that may spark a controversy while you are still alive. You can soothe any hurt feelings by explaining your reasoning, and as an added bonus, you get to see your loved one enjoy whatever it is you are passing on to them.
Don’t leave an epic battle as your legacy. Take the time now to make an estate plan and show your friends and family how much you care for them by sharing it with them.