Nipping estate feuds in the bud

June 7, 2010
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Sometimes it seems like the larger the estate, the greater the chances the heirs will end up in court after the parents die.

That scenario is on grand display with the sons of late industrialist J. Irwin Miller fighting over a measly $3 million—measly because the sons along with their three sisters each inherited about $20 million after taxes from the former Cummins Inc. chief and his wife, Xenia.

As IBJ reporter Kathleen McLaughlin wrote in this weekend’s paper, Hugh Miller sued Will Miller, claiming that Will spent too much money maintaining the historic Irwin Home and Gardens in Columbus. Will, who managed the estate under power of attorney for J. Irwin and his wife, Xenia, paid too much money for things that didn’t directly affect their mother, the suit claims.

J. Irwin died in 2004 and Xenia in 2008. The story is here.

A squabble was the last thing the couple wanted, with J. Irwin going so far as to write an eloquent letter to the children emphasizing money was the least important legacy the children would receive.

Ultimately, the fight is sad. But Rick Kissel, who heads estate and business succession planning at the Indianapolis office of Cincinnati-based law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, sees too much unnecessary conflict.

Kissel notes that families that fight the least tend to talk a lot about estates prior to parents’ deaths.

Without commenting on any feud in particular, Kissel says squabbles break out frequently when “subsequent” spouses are involved. Children often resent step parents’ receiving part of the estate.

Big problems also erupt when heirs are surprised. The World War II generation is particularly quiet and private about estates, he notes, so when wills are read, feelings get hurt.

The best antidote is talking about estates beforehand, something Baby Boomers are learning, Kissel says. Heirs who know why an estate was divided the way it was, and why the parents feel it’s fair, absorb the decision better. The best results happen when heirs are involved in the decision, he adds.

“Information is a powerful thing. It makes everyone feel more confidence if they know what’s coming,” he says. “If people are unaware of what’s going on, they sort of feel lost and maybe a little vulnerable and a little scared and uncertain about what they future will bring.”

It’s especially important for business owners to talk about estates, he says, because so much of the owner’s net worth can be tied up in the business, and businesses can be hard to value and they aren’t easy to divide without destroying the business.

What are your thoughts about estates? The Miller suit?

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