Unfortunately no matter how close a family might seem, it always has the potential to endure disputes between members either during everyone’s lifetimes or after someone has passed away. The fights can get ugly and feelings can get hurt. But often the disputes could have easily been avoided, or resolved, if individuals remembered the lessons they learned in kindergarten.
If you are the “lucky” individual nominated to be the estate administrator – either as a personal representative, trustee or main contact individual for the family – remember that you essentially control the situation and should start the administration process on a (relatively) positive note with the other interested parties. Certainly, the other interested parties – such as the beneficiaries and/or estate creditors – can get in the way and can make the administration more difficult purely through the differences in personalities. But you can hopefully avoid some conflicts down the road if you remember to follow the rules of administering an estate, which are governed by state statutes or the decedent’s Will or Trust.
Regardless of whether you are the estate administrator or beneficiary keep these five simple rules in mind to hopefully avoid conflict and the possibility of alienating close loved ones for years to come.
1. Be Kind
The cliché of “treat others how you would want to be treated” and conversely, “do not treat others how you would not like to be treated” really should govern every interaction you have one others throughout an estate administration. It does not matter if you are interacting with the beneficiaries of the estate, estate administrator, attorneys, court, or creditors of the estate, overall, be kind to one another. You do not necessarily have to like everyone – but treat people with respect and kindness. This can go a long way if a conflict does arise.
2. Communicate Effectively
When parties are communicating with one another, remember to do so effectively. At the risk of sounding condescending, act as adults and use your words. State your issues, questions and claims clearly and try to not let emotions get in the way.
As an estate administrator you have to deal with a lot of parties – creditors, beneficiaries, and other nosy relatives. But remember that as the estate administrator, since you are in control, you always know the status of the administration and the issues that have to be resolved before the estate can be distributed. At times, whether it is required or not, it would behoove you to keep interested parties in the loop so that they are not left wondering if things are being handled properly. Consider relaying how decisions were made, the process that you may have taken to get to a decision, why you believe it was the best decision at the time and how the decision will impact others involved with the estate. If you are proactively transparent with interested parties, you can often manage to head off unwarranted (and unwanted) complaints.
Additionally, if you are a beneficiary, remember that you would not want your actions to constantly be questioned or face accusations of wrongdoing. Being the estate administrator is a tough, and frankly thankless, job and unless you truly have reason to suspect wrongdoing, give the estate administrator the benefit of the doubt until it is necessary to suspect otherwise. However, if you feel as though you are not receiving proper and timely updates from the estate administrator, contact him or her and let your concerns be known. When doing so, convey your message once and allow ample time for the estate administrator to respond appropriately before inundating him or her with complaints.
Interactions between parties should of course always be respectful and appropriate, which brings me to the next lesson…
Remember to listen to others! A large part of effective communication is knowing when it is appropriate to listen to the other parties. In estate administrations, emotions can certainly run high and parties (despite the advice above) will react out of strong emotions and hurt feelings. Estate administrations occur because someone has passed away and therefore, parties should address one another with kindness and sympathy given that everyone deals with grief differently. Try to recognize when someone just needs to vent or work through his or her emotions and acknowledge the feelings they are experiencing (regardless of whether you agree with them or not) without judgment or interruption.
This could be one of the harder lessons for people to adopt because often parties will hold firm on what they believe they are entitled to. However, if parties were more willing to compromise with another they would ultimately discover that they are not giving up as much as they originally thought. Estates should certainly be administered according to the decedent’s wishes either through the terms of the Will or Trust Agreement. Unfortunately, certain gifts and bequests can be ambiguous and a determination must be made as to the ultimate distribution of a particular asset. Again, if people are more willing to compromise and settle on an agreeable distribution, when faced with this situation, they most likely will find they will receive more than if they decide to take the issue to court, which takes time and eats up estate assets.
5. Play Fair
As mentioned above, estate administrations involve a lot of emotional baggage, which means that parties should not prey on one another’s feelings. Focus on the matters at hand and address the issues that arise when they arise. Do not use the time to air your grievances from decades ago and dig up old family drama that should be buried in the past. Estate administrations are not the time to equalize the family playing fields of sibling rivalries and competing attentions. At the end of the day, try to celebrate the life of the decedent and honor his or her wishes.
If parties can remember these few simple rules – that we all were taught in kindergarten –an estate should be able to be successfully administered efficiently and effectively.