So many times, disputes during probate stem from the fact that people are disappointed. There are all kinds of things people can be disappointed by during probate. Maybe they expected to receive something that they didn’t receive. Maybe they don’t like the surviving spouse—perhaps their father’s most recent wife—receiving things. Maybe they were counting on money that was dispersed differently than they thought it would be.
I think the best way to avoid those disappointments, if possible, is to be open about your planning. Some people aren’t very comfortable with this, but if you can find it in yourself, I recommend telling people what to expect ahead of time. This can save money and heartache later on.
My favorite story about this has to do with an elderly lady who had three children. The children didn’t get along. They were jealous of each other and fought all the time. The woman had all three of her children over to her house and gave them each a sheet of colored dot stickers—one sheet of red, one of blue, one of yellow—and said, “Here, fight about everything now while I’m still here, and we’ll decide what everyone wants and what they’re getting. That way when I’m gone, you won’t be fighting about everything.”
People are often afraid that they’ll hurt people’s feelings or disappoint them if they let them know what they plan to do with their estate. But if you are concerned, for instance, with your children continuing to have a good relationship, I strongly urge you to be open with your planning so they don’t have to deal with disappointment and jealousy and anger during the probate process.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to tell anyone what’s in your estate plan. You are certainly entitled to privacy in your planning. However, I think it’s a good idea to keep in mind that at your death, a will is public record, and everyone will see it.
That said, it is relatively rare for a dispute during probate to turn into full-blown litigation. Many times, people will truly believe that they want to institute a dispute with the probate process. However, once they realize the realities of litigation, and what it will take and what it will cost, they tend to reconsider. Most probate disagreements are settled through family settlement agreements without litigation.
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