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How to Write a Will That Won’t Start a War

To date, we’ve done more than 4,000 free wills for active and retired firefighters and their spouses. One of the reasons to have a will is to make things easier for the people we leave behind. But some wills do just the opposite.

All too often, well-meaning people put things in their wills that are destined to spark conflict among their heirs. What seems good on paper may play out disastrously in real life. Here, we offer you some tips for writing a will that won’t start a family feud.

Tip #1: Name the right executor

Your executor will be responsible for settling your estate, a very serious responsibility. The person you choose should be responsible, organized, and extremely ethical. If you choose someone who is not, the things that need to be done to settle the estate will be done improperly, very slowly or not at all.

People often name executors based solely upon family hierarchy (the oldest child), or personal relationships (the spouse, the oldest friend), rather than considering who has the skills best suited for the job. That is a mistake. Finally, if there is nobody that you think is up for the task, consider appointing a professional fiduciary or a corporate trustee as your executor.

Tip #2: Little things can cause big problems

Some of the littlest things, a holiday decoration, or a childhood toy, can trigger terrible fighting. Anything with sentimental value can cause people to act irrationally. We call it the “mom always wanted me to have that” syndrome.

Parents should talk to their kids about whether there are any items that hold sentimental value, and decide who gets what. You can make a list detailing this, and keep it with your will as a guide for your family. And, to foster cooperation, a clause can be added to the will that directs the executor to sell any disputed item if the heirs cannot agree on who gets it.

Tip #3: Explain any unequal bequests

Parents sometimes leave one child more money than the others, and there are usually sound reasons for the decision. One child might be less financially successful than the others. One child might have done more to care for the parent in later years. But unequal bequests often feel unjust to the people left behind.

Parents who aren’t planning to leave equal amounts to all of their children should explain their reasoning. It might not be an easy conversation, but it can prevent your kids from blaming one another when you are gone. If you aren’t around to answer questions about why you did it that way, your heirs will come to their own conclusions.

Tip #4: Don’t tie up the money too long

Parents who leave bequests for children are often concerned that they will squander the money if they get it too soon. It’s common to see provisions in wills saying that the kids won’t receive their full inheritance until a specific age. But tying the money up for too long can be just as bad as giving it to a child too soon. Think about what your child might need (college tuition, a first home), and when they would reasonably need the money based upon these needs.

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