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Blood Battles: Inheritance Planning

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LAS VEGAS -- Inheritance planning can make clients act crazy.

During a talk at the 2015 AICPA Personal Financial Planning Conference, Mark Accettura, elder law attorney and author of ‘Blood and Money: Why families fight about inheritance and what to do about it’, warned his audience of the various conflicts that can arise from inheritance planning. Often, conflicts are fueled by common family dynamics. But sometimes, they arise from abusive relationships.

“If you’ve been in this field at all, people do some odd things,” he said. “Part of the reason people act as crazy as they [do] is we are catching them at the worst time of their life.”

While inheritance planning is no doubt a complex problem, Accettura thinks that some are quick to identify its cause: “Greed is not the problem - it is the symptom. The problem is fear,” he said.

But what are clients afraid of? Exclusion. Accettura cites favoritism, sibling rivalry and fraught relationships between stepchildren and stepparents as some of the leading causes of conflict. Favoritism is usually associated with larger gifts, which can strain relationships between both groups -- particularly among stepchildren and stepparents, who are behind the majority of inheritance disputes.

“Those stepparents and stepchildren are not connected genetically,” said Accettura. “They don’t have the same wish to see [each other] succeed as they do their own children.”

When discussing inheritance plans with clients, advisors and lawyers should work together and attempt to draft a plan that doesn’t pit any one group against the other.

Accetura also warns that family members who have been excluded -- either from estate plans or even the family altogether -- can often see the process as a prime time for re-entry. Inheritance disputes are not just lawsuits when a loved one dies. “A vast majority of disputes begin as the parent fails,” he said.

A family "black sheep" can see an elderly family member struggling with dementia, for example, and attempt to get back in their good graces just in time to secure a place in the will.

Planners should ask themselves whether or not the family members they are working with have the authority to make changes or additions to pre-existing estate plans -- particularly when a client has dementia. Legally, diagnosis of dementia (especially mild dementia) does not negate an individual’s legal capacity to change a will.

This touches on an issue closer to home that advisors need to watch for. Since anyone with testamentary capacity can legally change their will, these types of clients need extra protection from predators within their families.

Indeed, 90% of financial elder abuse is perpetrated by an individual’s own family -- often a child -- most of whom tend to be unemployed or suffer from substance abuse problems, according to Accetura.

“When you combine the fact that humans are very suspicious and worried about being left out, and the fact that often they are often literally entitled to nothing, the opportunity for bad behavior arises, but also the reason and legitimacy of those anxieties,” Accettura said.

What’s the takeaway for advisors? Start far ahead of your clients’ decline. Ask your clients questions about their estate plans and the legacies they want to leave.

“With younger people with young families, it’s harder because you’re looking into the future and their demise is so far out,” said Rob Lemmons, a Cincinnatti-based CFP attending the conference. “I think a lot of times as people see their kids go off to college and get married, that’s when they get really serious about it."

Accettura says the goal for all parties involved with inheritance planning is keeping families as intact as possible.

“The importance of family is really our ultimate legacy,” he said. Ask clients: “What’s the plan? How do you want to help your family, how do you make your life better. What are your goals? [Advisors] can help them fill those in with the various tools that you have.”

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