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Use estate mediation to prevent California heir wars

Many people in California are familiar with mediation in divorce. Spouses who employ mediators often save money and time by resolving sticky issues like asset disputes without prolonged, emotion-fueled litigation.

For many of the same reasons, mediation is also used to settle heirs' arguments over estates. Successful mediation is a low-key answer to what otherwise might be a lengthy, costly, unsatisfactory battle in probate.

Heirs can get into tooth-and-nail disagreements about assets with little or no value. It is not uncommon for family members to be in complete agreement about the distribution of multimillion dollar assets. The same relatives may squabble indefinitely over a far less expensive item that has emotional and personal value.

Why do these wild, family-splitting episodes happen? Mediators and attorneys say interpretation of vague estate documents has a lot to do with it. Estate plans with pristine outlines for tax savings and probate avoidance can include wills with undefined wording.

The person who creates an estate plan sometimes is more comfortable with financial challenges than getting down to the basics of death. Estate documents' words become easy to avoid when the subject of death is too harsh to face.

Division of families over the division of an estate also occurs when heirs harbour private thoughts about how assets are distributed. A child secretly hopes for years that a parent will bequeath them a certain item. When the desire is not fulfilled after the parent's death, the hidden wish is revealed and the fireworks begin.

Families may experience a downside by using an estate mediator. Heirs come to agreements during mediation that are frequently reviewed by individual attorneys before signing. When attorneys disagree about the settlement terms, mediation falls apart.

What heirs, mediators and attorneys have learned is that estate plan documents without explicit direction cause strife. The wording used to distribute assets is just as crucial as the assets themselves.

Source: online.wsj.com, "If Heirs Are Fighting, Try Mediation," Robbie Shell, March 15, 2013

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