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Wills Can Leave a Bitter Legacy
Poor planning, vague bequests may lead to family feuds, lawyers warn
May 25, 2002 -- Recently, there have been many high profile family feuds
over the assets of deceased celebrities. Frank Sinatra's three children sued his
widow, his fourth wife, who was left a multimillionaire at his death, when she was
slow to ensure that they received the $200,000 U.S. and personal items left to each
Former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith recently won an $88.6 Million U.S.
victory in a complex legal battle with her stepsons over the estate of her late
husband of 14 months, estimated at more that $1 Billion U.S.. The Texas oil tycoon
had wheeled into the bar where she was a topless dancer. The pair wed in 1994, when
she was 26 and he was 89.
But you don't have to be rich and famous to die leaving a Will that will leave
your family members at each other's throats. Lawyer Les Kotzer and his partner Barry
Fish wrote a book full of do's and don'ts and cautionary tales about Wills. The
book is based on their professional experience and is called
The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It.
Wills that have been prepared without considering all of the circumstances are
"ticking time bombs", says Kotzer. "The explosions and rifts that result can last
for generations. Of course," he hastens to add, "failing to make a Will is not going
to lead to a desirable situation either." If you don't have a Will, your same-sex
partner or your common-law spouse will (probably) inherit nothing. "The government
will write your Will for you," observes Kotzer. "The law doesn't favor the caregiving
child, and gives just as much to the child you haven't seen in 20 years. It doesn't
give your best friend anything. The situation is a real mess."
Choosing whom to give legal responsibility for power-of-attorney for health care
and for property, and executorship of a Will is critically important, he advises.
"If the children have no legal power then the government becomes the guardian of
your property", Kotzer says. It's best to talk openly with family members, to make
sure that people's attitudes are as clear as possible. Don't assume that the oldest
child, or the child who is best in math, wants the responsibility. With the medical
power-of-attorney, it helps if you can appoint someone who lives close to you, and
to carry a card with this information in your wallet.
One feature of a Will that is full of potential for family battles is the disposition
of personal items. You don't have to be rich to leave fights among your children.
"Often, the fighting is not over money, it is over memories", Kotzer says. "Don't
assume goodwill. Be as specific as possible. Leaving 'all my antiques' to a particular
person invites a battle over what is an antique in terms of the Will and what is
"Review the Will regularly and make sure things have not changed in value, knocking
everything off balance. There are no easy answers", Kotzer says. "There are strategies
and suggestions, and it may help to look at other people's experiences. But don't
rush to judgment. Think about what you are doing."
Information about the book is available at the USLegalWills.com
(Based on an article from Janice Mawhinney, Life Writer, The Toronto
Star, May 25, 2002)
(Note that you can create your Will, Power of Attorney and Living Will online at
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