The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has talked about many different situations where disputes and competing interests among family members can arise. For example, when a person prepares his or her estate plan many decisions must be made regarding the details and provisions in documents such as a Last Will, Living Will, Health Care Proxy, Power of Attorney and Living Trust. The selection of beneficiaries, executors, trustees and agents are usually made within the context of family dynamics where the personal preferences of the person creating the documents is mixed with the differing interests and sometimes long-standing antagonism existing between intended beneficiaries or appointees.
In a related situation, a person may become incapacitated due to an accident or medical condition such as dementia or heart ailment. It may be necessary to seek the assistance of the Court by applying for the appointment of an Article 81 Guardian. In many of these cases, particularly where the Alleged Incapacitated Person ("AIP") was ill prior to the Court application, various family members may have been involved with the AIP's property management or personal affairs prior to Court intervention. Other family members may believe that decisions previously made by the involved parties were improper. There also may be contested Guardianship proceedings regarding whether the appointment of a Guardian is appropriate or which family member is the proper person to be appointed. Family disputes regarding a loved one's long term care, property management and other end of life decisions are not uncommon.
For example, the recent death of T.V. star Gary Coleman highlighted some of these problems. Following his death, questions were raised as to whether Gary Coleman's ex-wife had the authority to remove him from life support and apparently a dispute developed between the actor's wife and his parents regarding his burial.
Many disputes among family members arise following a person's death. Will contests and lawsuits regarding improper transfer of assets can fill the Court dockets and make headlines. Just recently, it was reported that a number of lawsuits were filed in a Salem, Massachusetts case where a widow claimed that the decedent's sons, with the assistance of a retired judge and another lawyer, cheated her out of her inheritance. Many of the postings in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog have discussed similar legal battles.
Avoiding family disputes before and after an individual's death should be of paramount concern. While all controversies cannot be prevented, there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of family warfare. A few are listed below.
First and foremost, proper estate planning, including advance directives such as a health care proxy, should be prepared by a New York estate planning attorney. It is important to have a complete understanding of the assets that are to be transferred and the terms of the Last Will, Trust papers and other documents that are to be signed.
I have helped many clients prepare estate plans and directives to fully reflect their wishes and protect their beneficiaries.
The selection of executors, trustees and agents is important. These appointees should be individuals you can trust and who can make appropriate decisions to carry out your plan. It is a good practice to discuss a person's appointment with them prior to naming them in a document so that it can be determined whether they are agreeable to being appointed and possibly advise them as to the terms of the appointment.
Lastly, continue to review and update an estate plan. Assets, family circumstances and planning goals tend to change over time. All planning documents should be periodically reviewed and updated to ensure that a person's estate plan and directives reflect current situations. Many problems arise where documents that are decades old need to be updated and no longer reflect present realities.
New York City estate attorney Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in Probate and Estate Administration proceedings throughout the past 30 years. I have represented clients in many counties including Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a Last Will or other aspects of Probate or Estate Administration, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.