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New York & North Carolina

Common Inheritance Disputes and Effective Prevention Strategies

Parisi, Coan & Saccocio, PLLC

Inheritance disputes can be a significant source of stress and financial strain for families. These disputes often arise from unclear or contested wills, complex family dynamics, and substantial assets. Understanding the common causes of inheritance disputes and how to prevent them can help ensure a smoother transition of wealth and assets to future generations.

1. Ambiguities in the Will

One of the most common causes of inheritance disputes is ambiguity in the language of the will. If a will is unclear about the distribution of assets, beneficiaries may interpret the document differently, leading to conflicts. Ambiguities can arise from:

  • Vague Language: Phrases like "fair share" or "as they see fit" can lead to varying interpretations.
  • Omissions: Failing to include specific instructions for certain assets or beneficiaries.
  • Contradictions: Conflicting provisions within the will itself.

To prevent these issues, working with an experienced estate planning attorney who can draft a will with precise and unambiguous language is crucial.

2. Understanding Undue Influence and Coercion in Wills

Claims of undue influence or coercion occur when beneficiaries believe that the deceased was pressured or manipulated into making or changing their will. This is particularly common in situations where:

  • The Deceased Was Vulnerable: Due to age, illness, or dependency on the influencer.
  • Unequal Distributions: A will significantly favoring one beneficiary over others can raise suspicions.

Documenting the testator's mental state, obtaining medical evaluations, and having witnesses present during the will signing can help mitigate these disputes. For more insight, refer to the article on MarketWatch, "‘His wife is manipulative’: My father married a woman, 60, with no money, then changed his will. How can I preserve my inheritance?".

3. Lack of Testamentary Capacity in Estate Planning

For a will to be valid, the testator must have had the mental capacity to understand the nature and extent of their estate and the implications of their decisions when the will was made. Disputes can arise if beneficiaries claim the testator lacked this capacity due to the following:

  • Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease: Progressive illnesses affecting cognitive abilities.
  • Temporary Conditions: Acute medical conditions or medications that impair judgment.

Maintaining thorough medical records and obtaining assessments from mental health professionals when drafting the will can provide evidence of the testator's capacity.

4. Addressing Disinheritance to Prevent Will Disputes

Disinheriting a close family member, such as a child or spouse, often leads to disputes. In New York, specific protections are in place, such as a spouse's right to an elective share of the estate. Disinherited parties may challenge the will on various grounds, including undue influence, lack of capacity, or fraud.

To minimize the risk of disputes, it is advisable to:

  • Include an Explanation: Briefly explaining the reason for disinheritance in the will can clarify and reduce conflicts.
  • Use a No-Contest Clause: This clause discourages beneficiaries from contesting the will by threatening to disinherit them if they do.

5. Managing Disputes Among Co-Trustees and Executors

Co-trustees and executors are responsible for managing and distributing the estate. Disputes can arise if there is:

  • Lack of Communication: Poor communication and collaboration between co-trustees or executors.
  • Conflict of Interest: Personal interests that conflict with their fiduciary duties.
  • Differing Opinions: Disagreements on how to manage or distribute the estate.

Choosing co-trustees and executors who work well together and have clear guidelines and professional advice can help prevent such disputes.

6. Accurate Valuation of High-Value Estate Assets

High-value assets, such as real estate, businesses, and investments, can be challenging to value accurately. Disputes can arise if beneficiaries disagree on the valuation or distribution of these assets. To address this, consider:

  • Professional Appraisals: Obtaining independent appraisals to determine the fair market value of assets.
  • Buy-Sell Agreements: Pre-arranged agreements that outline the terms for buying or selling interests in a business or property.

7. Estate Planning for Blended Families

Blended families with children from previous marriages often face complex inheritance issues. Conflicts can arise over perceived favoritism or unequal treatment. Clear and detailed estate planning, including trusts and prenuptial agreements, can ensure that all family members are fairly considered and reduce potential disputes.

Inheritance disputes can be complicated and emotionally charged, especially for high-value and complex estates. Our experienced attorneys offer the guidance you need to ensure your estate is distributed according to your wishes, minimizing potential conflicts among your beneficiaries. Call 914-228-7448 or contact us to schedule your consultation today!