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5 minute read

Top Estate Planning Tips for the Dysfunctional Family

Worried about how to create an estate plan that will meet the needs of your dysfunctional family? Read our tips on how to create an estate plan to accommodate that.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

At Trust & Will, we understand that every family is unique and has its own dynamics. While we provide guidance on how to create an estate plan to prevent family conflict, what if your family is already dysfunctional and rife with strife?

Whether you identify with the Tenenbaums, the Roys, or the Hoovers, it's critical to plan ahead and put special measures in place. We've put together some top tips for estate planning for the dysfunctional family to help you navigate this challenging situation.

Poor Estate Planning: Adding Fuel to the Fire

Poor estate planning can often lead to family conflict, especially in instances where family dynamics are already strained. It's like throwing fuel on an already smoldering fire. Without a clear and comprehensive estate plan, your family members may dispute who gets what, leading to potential legal battles and further fracturing family relationships. Moreover, if your wishes aren't outlined in a legally binding document, it can leave your estate open to interpretation, causing confusion and resentment among heirs. To avoid this, it is crucial to plan your estate diligently and effectively.

Here are some detailed examples of potential consequences of poor or absent estate planning, and how they can put a strain on family dynamics:

1. Prolonged Probate Process: Without a well-structured estate plan, the probate process can be longer and more complex than it already is. This delay may lead to impatience, frustration, and even suspicion among family members, increasing stress levels and exacerbating relationships. At worst, this tension can lead to conflict that requires legal remediation. Everyone loses, as these are additional legal expenses that will take away from the value of the estate.

2. Unequal Distribution of Assets: In the absence of specific asset distribution instructions, your estate may be divided in a way that seems unfair to some family members. This perceived inequality can breed resentment, triggering disputes that can further damage familial bonds.

3. Guardianship Disagreements: If you have minor children and haven't named a legal guardian, your family might end up in court, arguing over who should raise your children. This can lead to bitter legal battles, causing rifts that might take years to heal.

4. Unresolved Debts: If your estate plan doesn't address how to handle your debts, there might be confusion and conflict over who should bear the responsibility. This can result in heightened tensions, especially if finances are already a point of contention in the family.

5. Invasion of Privacy: The probate process is a matter of public record. Without an estate plan ensuring privacy, the details of your estate could become public, leading to embarrassment or hurt feelings among family members. The revelation of these details can further strain familial relationships. Plus, no one wants their dirty laundry aired out in the public eye.

Remember, effective estate planning is a proactive step towards preserving family harmony and ensuring your legacy is handled according to your wishes.

Common Types of Dysfunction: Distancing, Alienation, Estrangement

While there are many types of dysfunctional family dynamics that can manifest, there are three key types of dysfunction that tend to lead to the most drastic estate planning outcomes. Namely, these outcomes can look like being completely cut off or disinherited from your family's estate.

Here's a look at how family dysfunction could personally affect you in the context of your inheritance:

  • Distancing: This is a dynamic where family members deliberately limit contact with one another to reduce conflict. In an estate planning context, distancing can make communication about estate matters difficult, causing unnecessary confusion and potential disputes.

  • Alienation: Alienation occurs when a family member feels isolated or excluded by the rest of the family. This could result from a perceived or actual act of favoritism by the parents in their estate planning. The alienated family member might feel unfairly treated, leading to potential legal battles over inheritance.

  • Estrangement: Estrangement refers to a complete breakdown of the family relationship, where one or more family members completely cut ties with others. In terms of estate planning, this could lead to someone being disinherited or left out of the will entirely, causing severe emotional distress and potential legal disputes.

Case Study: Prince Harry and the Royal Family

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been publicly vocal about their estrangement from the British Royal Family, making their situation a prime example of family dysfunction and its implications on estate planning.

This estrangement was formalized when they decided to step back from their roles as senior members of the Royal Family, a move colloquially termed as 'Megxit'. This decision had potential consequences on their share of the royal inheritance. Prince Harry has publicly shared that he has been cut off financially from the Royal Family and is currently living from his inheritance left to him by the late Princess Diana.

While the specifics of the Royal Family's estate plans are not public, it's reasonable to assume that a member's standing within the family could influence their inheritance. In the case of Prince Harry and Meghan, their decision to distance themselves may have resulted in changes to how the royal wealth will be distributed among family members. Namely, it is possible that King Charles III may have disinherited Prince Harry from the Royal family estate.

This presents a clear instance of how family dynamics can significantly alter estate planning outcomes. The high-profile nature of their situation also serves to highlight the emotional distress and public scrutiny that can accompany such disputes, lending further importance to thorough, fair, and clear estate planning.

Estate Planning for the Dysfunctional Family: Top Tips

When dealing with a dysfunctional family, creating an estate plan can be particularly challenging.

While there are no clear guidelines as each family dynamic is so unique, there are still some general tips that we can recommend:

1. Understand the current dynamic: Maybe you're fully aware of your family dynamics. Maybe you're keeping a safe distance for your mental well-being, or maybe you're maintaining limited contact while observing the drama unfold from afar. Be on the lookout for telltale signs of potential issues such as: sibling rivalry, multiple estate Executors, substance abuse, second marriages and blended families, estrangement, disinheritance, or unequal asset distribution. None of these conditions guarantee that your family will dispute over your estate, but being aware of these potential complications can help guide your estate planning efforts.

2. Communicate openly and honestly: It's essential to have open and honest communication with your family members, especially when discussing estate planning matters. Be transparent about your intentions, explain the reasoning behind your decisions, and listen to any concerns or objections they may have. While beneficiaries might not always agree with your process, you'll at least have had transparency and done your part in making sure everyone is informed so that they won't be caught off-guard. This also extends them the opportunity to voice any concerns, opinions, or grievances and potentially provide some room for negotiations. It is much better to address these concerns during your lifetime when you can amend your estate plan, rather than after your passing when it's too late.

3. Document Everything: When dealing with a dysfunctional family, it's crucial to have all your estate planning documents in order and properly executed. This includes wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and any other relevant legal documents. It's also essential to keep thorough and detailed records of all communications related to your estate plan.

4. Seek a mediator: If tensions are high and communication has broken down, it may be helpful to seek the assistance of a professional mediator. A neutral third party can help facilitate productive discussions and find common ground between family members.

5. Consider alternative distribution methods: In some cases, traditional inheritance methods may not be suitable for a dysfunctional family. You may want to consider setting up a Trust or using other methods of distribution, such as gifting assets during your lifetime. When your personal circumstances are complex, it is often recommended to seek guidance from an estate planning professional who can help you obtain your desired outcomes using specific estate planning tools best tailored to your situation.

6. Plan for contingencies: When dealing with a dysfunctional family, it's crucial to plan for any potential scenarios that may arise. This may include designating alternative beneficiaries or creating provisions in your Will for family members who may contest your estate plan.

7. Review and update regularly: It's essential to review and update your estate plan regularly, especially in a dysfunctional family setting. Family dynamics can change quickly, and it's crucial to ensure that your wishes are accurately reflected in your estate plan.

Take Preventative Measures Today

Every family is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating an estate plan for a dysfunctional family. It's best to seek the guidance of an estate planning professional who can help you navigate through any challenges and create a plan that meets your specific needs and goals. With careful planning and open communication, it's possible to prevent family conflict and ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes. So don't let a dysfunctional family discourage you from creating an estate plan – take the necessary steps to protect your legacy and loved ones. 

At Trust & Will, we understand the complexities of estate planning in a dysfunctional family context. We strive to simplify the estate planning process, make it accessible and affordable, and offer you the peace of mind you deserve. We have a wealth of resources readily available to guide you through every step of the journey. With Trust & Will as your partner, you can confidently navigate the landscape of estate planning, ensuring your assets are well-protected and your family legacy is upheld according to your wishes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning and settlement  options today!

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Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.

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