It can be devastating to lose a family member, and at a time when families should come together to mourn their loved one, nothing can hurt worse than a legal battle over inheritance. If you worry about how your own family will react to your estate plan after you’re gone, here is some important information to help minimize the chances of in-fighting between your beneficiaries. 

How Family Estate Disputes Can Happen

After someone dies, there are a few factors that can cause disputes over inheritances, including:

  • The more money or assets at stake, the more likely disputes will arise.
  • A beneficiary may feel that he did not receive a full share, or someone else received an unfair amount.
  • A prior history of conflict between beneficiaries can cause ill feelings and result in lawsuits.
  • The economic situation of your beneficiaries can make a difference. Someone who stands to significantly increase his assets may fight to claim as much as possible.

You may not always be able to fully account for issues like these. After all, if a beneficiary wants to dispute your estate plan and file a lawsuit, it is usually his legal right to do so. However, there are steps that you can take to try and minimize the likelihood of disputes once you’re gone.

Ways to Avoid Inheritance Disputes

While planning your estate, there are several tactics you can use that may discourage the filing of disputes. Some may or may not be applicable to your specific estate, so talk to an estate planning attorney if you have concerns. Here are some ways to help prevent disputes:

  • Communicate. Talk with your beneficiaries ahead of time about your estate plan. Telling them what they can expect in the plan may help smooth over any future complications. This can be especially helpful if there is an unequal division of assets that you would like to explain, as an inequality that is perceived as unfair is more likely to lead to a lawsuit.
  • Use trusts to pass assets directly. When you choose to place assets in either a revocable trust or an irrevocable trust, many assets can be transferred to beneficiaries without going through probate, which can save both time and money. A trust can even distribute assets on a schedule, rather than all at once, if you’re worried about a beneficiary who might not be responsible with the gift you leave behind.
  • Choose your personal representatives and trustees with care. Sometimes the best choice is a third-party company that specializes in managing trusts. This can be particularly helpful if you think a dispute is likely, as the legal complications could get sticky for an inexperienced trustee.
  • Leave detailed instructions for real property. If you think it’s likely that a certain piece of real property (including real estate) could be a center of dispute, and real property often is, mention your wishes specifically in your estate plan. This can stop many disputes before they ever happen.
  • Update your plan regularly. Make sure that your estate plan, including your last will and testament, living will, powers of attorney, and trust documents, are regularly updated to be sure they still reflect your wishes. Families grow (and sometimes shrink), assets come and go, and preferences change over time.

With a little simple planning, you can reduce the chances of a difficult and emotionally painful legal battle over your estate. Your heirs will thank you for your wisdom for years to come.

Get Help With Your Estate Plan

A qualified estate planning and probate attorney can help you create an estate plan that may ease the transition of your assets to your beneficiaries. If you’re concerned about future disputes over your estate and would like to talk to a professional, we’re happy to help you care for your family’s future. Call us any time to arrange a private consultation at our Bellevue offices at (425) 460-0550.


Molly B. Kenny
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Divorce and Child Custody Attorney Serving Bellevue and Seattle Washington