Siblings can be our closest family members. But when it comes to litigation over family property or money, genetics can fall by the wayside and siblings can quickly become our biggest adversaries.

In disputes concerning wills or trusts, dormant—or not so dormant—sibling rivalry often emerges. Siblings of all ages, and of all economic or professional statures, have a tendency to dig in their heels, fight for control and often be profoundly pigheaded when legal and family matters collide. While probate disputes are ostensibly about money, the core of most probate litigation concerns decades of complex and emotional family issues. Indeed, a large percentage of sibling squabbles involves people in their 50s and 60s.

Siblings can become involved in probate litigation in many ways. A sibling may try to challenge a parent’s will. One sibling may try to set aside a conveyance of real estate or transfer of other assets that a parent made to another sibling. Several cases concern whether a sibling who is an executor is fulfilling his or her duties to the other beneficiaries.

Many conflicts begin when a parent treats children unequally in a will or trust. A testator certainly can do what he or she wants with his or her property. The profligate son or nasty daughter may very well not deserve an equal share.
Or it may seem unfair if the CEO son receives as much as his schoolteacher brother. But it is very difficult for a child of any age to accept unfair treatment. Wealth or professional status often does little to mitigate the myriad emotions someone feels when a parent treats a brother or a sister more favorably. These emotions can fuel litigation. While all litigation should be based on good-faith legal claims supported by facts, very often these emotions—right or wrong—prolong and complicate the litigation.

Parents, when devising estate plans, should consider sibling dynamics, and should consider both the emotional and financial consequences of treating children differently.  There are good arguments for treating each child equally. There are also good arguments for recognizing each child’s economic circumstances. Well-drafted estate plans can greatly reduce the types of legal claims a disgruntled child can make.   

Disputes often arise when one sibling cares for an aged or ailing parent while another sibling remains distant, either geographically, psychologically or both. Often the child who is closer will be involved in the parent’s financial affairs and likely has made personal sacrifices to care for the parent. Not surprisingly, a parent will often treat this child preferentially in a will.  Upon the death of the parent, the more distant child may become suspicious or resentful of the closer sibling.

But sometimes the caretaker child is not quite a saint. This child may feel entitled and try to exert undue influence upon the parent to convey assets or change estate plans for the child’s benefit. The courts are filled with cases where a child misuses a power of attorney or otherwise takes advantage of a vulnerable parent. These cases are challenging because the caretaker child may be part martyr and part scoundrel. The distant sibling may have a hard time contradicting the closer sibling’s testimony about what the parent said or did. The closer sibling may rationalize, exaggerate or outright lie.

And there are certainly many cases where the closer sibling has acted appropriately and the distant sibling’s suspicions stem from envy, guilt or just misunderstanding.  Ultimately, a court may have to decide what the parent intended, and whether the parent understood any changes to the estate plans or to the title of assets. A court will typically consider a parent’s medical history, competency and relationship with each child in addition to the circumstances of the questionable changes.    
Similar issues can arise when one sibling is appointed personal representative of a parent’s estate. A personal representative has a fiduciary duty to administer an estate in accordance with the law and in the best interests of all the beneficiaries. Carrying out these responsibilities can be difficult if other siblings resent the appointment or otherwise let emotions interfere with the administration of the estate. Conversely, there are numerous situations where the personal representative takes advantage of the position and uses his or her authority to engage in self-serving conduct to the detriment of the other beneficiaries. Litigation may be necessary to correct any wrongful conduct.

First « 1 2 » Next