Four Ways to Settle a Family Estate Peacefully

My husband and I are currently in the middle of a family triangle that we never envisioned we’d be a part of. You see, we’re trying to buy a family home to turn it into our forever homeplace. Yet, the process to get there has taken more than three years, primarily because end-of-life documentation wasn’t properly handled and as such, settling the estate has been a matter of reading between the lines, with every family member tending to have his or her own view of what the lines actually say. It’s been disappointing and disheartening to say the least, but it could have been totally preventable. Today, let’s take a look at four simple ways that families can work together to settle an estate as peacefully and smoothly as possible.

1. Keep the process to immediate heirs.

When dividing up and settling a personal estate, there will likely be items or property that gets handed down or across family lines. This is especially the case with real estate or family land. Yet, while spouses or children of the immediate heirs might be involved down the line, during the division process it’s helpful if only the immediate heirs actively participate. Limiting the party to only these members can help ensure that outside opinions and influences don’t introduce bias.

2. Hire an expert to help mediate.

Especially if there are tensions within the family or between siblings, it’s always best to hire an outside expert to help mediate the process, navigate the legal paperwork and make sure everyone stays focused and on the same page. For instance, you might find that it’s simple enough to divide up money or property, but when it comes to personal items that hold more sentimental value, you just can’t agree. That’s when a tangible property expert can prove invaluable in helping determine a fair and reasonable way forward. Or, you may also consider hiring probate lawyers at the onset of the process to help you better manage and distribute the estate. Regardless of the professional help you opt to deploy, it’s always ideal to have someone with legal control and power present during any discussions surrounding the estate.

3. Draw lots and take turns if necessary.

In many cases, the deceased person didn’t write down exactly who is set to inherit every single piece of personal property. When that happens, you might not be surprised to find that interested parties all lay claim to the same object. To determine who should fairly receive it, you might consider going the simplified route of just drawing lots, and letting each person choose an item when it’s their turn to select. Or, you can have each person in the inheritance write down a list of 10 personal items they’d like to receive from the estate. If no one else claims an item they have on their list, it becomes theirs. If there are duplicate requests, the method of drawing lots is available as a backup.

Keep in mind that if you do decided to use a round-robin approach to dividing the estate, it’s important to make sure everyone has enough chances to go so they can all receive items of equal value. For instance, you don’t want the first person who selects to walk away with the one pricey vase, while the rest of the family members are left with hardly anything to claim. Get an appraisal, if necessary, to determine which items in the home are the most valuable and use that knowledge to develop a selection system that’s fair.

4. Record everything and take notes.

What’s said in a lawyer’s office by one party could be immediately forgotten or misconstrued the next day. When that happens, feelings can get hurt, the process can become delayed, and emotions can boil. To prevent that occurrence, consider tape or video recording every official conversation that’s held concerning the estate settlement so there are no questions around who said what the next time you get together. Moreover, you’re more likely to stick to the facts and be conscious of and considerate with your speech if you know you’re being recorded.

While I wish these tactics had been deployed in our situation, we can only hope that moving forward, some of them will. Yes, it’s difficult to do business with family and the act and process of settling an estate is essentially a business transaction. Yet, it can be done successfully, smoothly and without any ill will. The key is working together, listening to each other, dividing up property as equally as possible, and bringing in an outside peacekeeper if necessary.