A little advance planning can help avoid probate court causing family problems
When your family appears in probate court, the Last Will and Testament of your deceased loved one abruptly becomes a matter of public record. Your family is no longer operating privately and safely within familiar boundaries, protected by the sanctity of home and family. While the reading of the will establishes the genuineness and validity of your deceased loved one's wishes, it also exposes you and your family to the unfamiliar and often unkind final steps of dispensing of your family's personal belongings.
After you have survived the pain of death and burial, the last thing you want to do is enter into a struggle with your family members. Yet many of us end up in just such a battle without any idea why. Unless you have talked about your family's estate disposition before you are plunged into the mechanics that surround the process, the probate arena can become an involuntary stage on which family issues may play out.
Prepare for estate settlement prior to death, if you can
Most of us simply don't have the emotional strength to cope with these issues and we feel bewildered by what is happening around us. The best way to avoid finding ourselves taken aback by the estate settlement is to prepare for it prior to the events of death. Then instead of sending your family into chaos, the reading of the will can provide comfort and closure for your grieving family.
All of us who have lost parents, grandparents, siblings or other relatives have felt the sorrow of seeing our loved one's possessions exposed for disposal at the probate court. Aside from our sadness, we feel uncomfortable and even a little shameful at disposing of things that our loved ones valued. It seems like their lives, once so vibrant, have simply disappeared and all that remains are bank accounts, policies and paperwork.
Most of us are uncomfortable talking about death before it happens. As our parents get older, we may find it morbid or grim to talk with them about death and dying. But for the aging family members who are facing the passage into old age and their own mortality, it can be quite comforting to talk about it. One way to think of it is similarly to how we view any other passage in life, like graduation, marriage or retirement.
Talk about your loved one's wishes with your family
Talking about dying with your family is not a eulogy and doesn't need to be depressing. It can be accomplished by sitting down with as many family members as possible and talking about death in a realistic and caring manner. Whether you discuss your loved one's wishes about their funeral or their desires regarding the dispensation of their belongings, the more you have talked about these things before the events of death, the better off you and other family members will be after death occurs.
In death as in life, people feel better when they are in control of their affairs and the possessions they have worked so hard to obtain. When you notice your loved ones begin to talk about death, sit down with them and listen to their concerns and wishes. Let them explain to you where their papers are kept and understand why they want the various items that were important to them to be given to one particular child or grandchild. They may even want to talk about what they would want their funeral to be like or a song that might be sung for them. Go over all the assets that are included in their estate until they feel comfortable knowing that you are aware where everything is located. Let them know that you value their inheritance and that they will always be remembered.
Decide who will act as executor of the estate
It is also important to discuss who in your family will act as executor of the estate and be certain that everyone understands that that person's role is to be present for probate court and to sign for the deceased that their Will has been executed according to their wishes.
One of the saddest and most tragic things about losing people we love is that we can't say things to them we wish we had said. If you allow yourself to talk to your loved ones about their deaths, all kinds of opportunities arise for intimate conversations that cannot possibly occur if you don't open yourself up to having them. Give your loved ones your time and consideration and let them talk about their lives.
Grandchildren can be particularly helpful with compiling a life book or making a video/CD of your family history and ancestry. Include as many family members as you can in honoring your loved ones' lives, which includes their beliefs and views about their deaths.
As you gather their papers and file them away with their Wills, have your loved ones write down some things they would like to pass on to particular people in the family; a dispensation of belongings list if you will. Include your siblings and other close relatives in reviewing this list before your loved ones die so that everyone knows which items go to which surviving child. This avoids entering that bleak and dangerous zone of "Well, mom told me I could have the piano" or "Dad would have wanted me to have the picture." Of course you will not be able to allow for every item, but having initiated the process makes the rest of it go much more smoothly.
Avoid feuding over the estate at all costs
The death of our parents or loved ones sends us far enough into despair and grief as it is. We want to avoid the even further agony of feuding over their estate in the probate court. We never think this will happen to us because we are loving and giving individuals and a close and caring family. But the loss of a parent or significant person in our lives can evoke all our childhood issues and plunge us backward in time. We all carry unresolved issues from our past family life around with us. If we are not careful we can regress into acting as if we are small children still vying for our rightful places at the table. And instead of having a soft cushion of relatives around us to buffer the blows of losing our loved ones, we may find ourselves behaving like the children we once were and taking ourselves further and further from where we want to be in our efforts to honor our loved one's legacy.
Prepare openly for death
Preparing openly for death can allow us to remain connected as a family and to cherish the relationships that will flourish for the rest of our lives. After the heartbreak of losing those we love begins to ease and we are able to look back and honor the gifts they left behind, we will feel comforted knowing we laid them to rest with the sensitivity and dignity they deserved.
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Death, the law and you section helpful too.
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