As a wills attorney who specializes in avoiding family inheritance disputes, Les Kotzer has seen a lot of wild behavior. Like the woman who smashed a crystal figurine in the parking lot to keep her sister from having it. Or the well-to-do brothers who spent a fortune in legal fees bickering over a Howdy Doody lunchbox and Dad’s old football trophy. Kotzer has seen so much, in fact, that he was compelled to write a book of real-life inheritance stories called Where There’s An Inheritance: Stories From Inside the World of Two Wills Lawyers from his Ontario practice.
“Even the most sensible, rational people sometimes devolve into 10-year-olds when it comes to wills and trusts,” says Kotzer.
There’s a perfect explanation for why inheritors seem to go over the edge, says Newport Beach, California, psychologist Dr. Steven Hendlin, author of Overcoming the Inheritance Taboo.
“Children interpret inheritances as a kind of final report card from Mom or Dad,” says Hendlin. “All the competitive and resentful feelings from the past come bubbling up to the surface.”
It’s an experience known to literally millions of Americans, particularly those from high net worth families. According to a landmark study from Boston College called “Millionaires at the Millennium,” the United States is currently in the middle of the largest inheritance boom in its history, with more than $41 trillion expected to pass between generations from 2000 to 2050.
And yet, says Kotzer, “Inheritances are kind of an electric, third-rail issue. People just don’t want to talk about it.” Rather, experts say, openly discussing inheritance is exactly the best way to attempt to feudproof your family: talk openly about what you plan to do with your wealth.
Honest and Open
There are a few language tricks that attorneys can use to discourage squabbling heirs. “Some jurisdictions, but not all, allow a no-contest clause that voids any inheritance gift if the inheritor challenges the will,” explains Kotzer.
But inheritance historians, attorneys, and therapists agree the most effective thing estate holders can do to prevent a feud later on is to simply be transparent in the present.