An estate plan exists to care for loved ones. There is simply no other reason to go through the work of organizing your assets. After all, you won’t need them when you’re gone. Don’t blow it by setting things up in such a way that could cause a family feud.

All too often the best intentions are not enough to keep selfish impulses at bay. While it is pleasant to think that loved ones will be nice and do right, such is not always the case. At difficult and emotional times, we are easily taken to extremes and may be surprised by even our own actions.

The following four estate planning principles will reduce the likelihood of family conflict in the aftermath of your passing.

1. Choose the right executor
An executor is not the same as a best man or maid of honor. The role shouldn’t go to your best friend, sibling, or spouse—yes, I know, if your spouse is also your maid of honor, estate planning might be the least of your worries…unless, of course, they are the most qualified for the job. The executor of an estate should be someone who is highly responsible, organized, and trustworthy to the extreme. If no one comes to mind, consider appointing a corporate trustee of a professional fiduciary.

2. Account for sentimental objects
It’s the little things that count, even (or especially) in estate planning. Often times, the smallest items are the most prone to cause conflict. Maybe it’s a childhood toy, maybe it’s the family advent wreath; whatever the item, if it carries sentimental value, it also carries the possibility of causing conflict. As a precaution, talk with children and loved ones ahead of time and decide how to distribute such items while you are still around to mediate.

3. Don’t delay distributions (too much)
While dumping a lump sum on someone too young to buy their own beer is unwise, so too is dragging out distributions over decades. Not only might this result in loved ones lacking money when they need it most, it might also breed resent. Children often read delayed distributions as an indictment, especially if they are well into their adult years. One common approach is to arrange for a portion of one’s inheritance to be delivered at age 21, another at 25, and the balance at 30.

4. Explain inequalities
If reliable data on frequent sources of conflict in estate distributions were available, I bet unequal bequests would top the list. While you might have very good reasons for leaving one child a greater portion of your estate than another, unless explained, you can almost be certain someone’s feelings will be hurt when the estate is processed. To avoid this, schedule a family meeting, sit everyone down, and detail your thinking. However painful, I promise the tension will be less than if you leave inequalities unannounced and unexplained.

While the above are critical points to keep in mind should the distribution of your estate go smoothly, even more important is transparent communication in general. This doesn’t mean sharing every detail, but it does mean thinking carefully about those which might be especially sensitive, and addressing them while you are still around to intercept potential misunderstandings.


The estate planning attorneys at Cleveland’s Deliberato Law Center are focused on your family’s wellbeing. We have worked with thousands of families in the Cleveland area, helping to create estate plans that address a wide range of needs and wants. Contact us to schedule a free consultation, or join us for a free estate planning workshop to learn more about how to protect your family through estate planning and elder law.