The best estate-planning advice Harry Leiser ever got came from his rabbi. "He had seen too many families fight over estates after the death of the parents," says Leiser, 56, a New London, Conn., commercial--real estate owner. "He suggested two things: treat each child equally, and don't rule from the grave."
Leiser, the father of two grown sons--one a law student, the other a teacher--took the advice to heart. "Family harmony was my motivation," he says, "and I divided my primary assets equally between my sons--with no strings attached--even though one has much greater earning potential than the other." Moreover, Leiser told his sons what they could expect so that any potential conflict could be dealt with before his death.
Estate planners would applaud Leiser and his rabbi. "Too many people think of estate planning in terms of preserving their assets," says estate attorney Les Kotzer of Toronto. "They should instead be focused on preserving the family." Like many other estate attorneys, Kotzer, co-author of The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It, has seen his share of family squabbles because of something parents did--or didn't--do in their will.
There's no question that the problem of family disharmony is on the rise, says Dennis Belcher, chairman of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law section of the American Bar Association (A.B.A.). There's more wealth than ever, and family relationships are more complicated as a result of the high number of remarriages and blended families. Making matters worse, among Americans 50 and older, only 17% have a will, a durable power of attorney and a living trust, according to the AARP. But even when parents have taken care of business, the potential for bad feeling runs high. "Parents tend to keep finances and plans a secret from the kids," says Sanford J. Schlesinger, chairman of the wills-and-estates practice at the firm Kaye Scholer L.L.P. in New York City, "and then the kids are shocked to find out what they perceive to be their parents' 'real' feelings about them."
It's not that parents deliberately make bad choices, says estate lawyer Colleen Barney, co-author of Best Intentions: Ensuring Your Estate Plan Delivers Both Wealth and Wisdom. Rather they operate under dubious assumptions, as Elizabeth Shen, 66, a widow and mother of six in Arcadia, Calif., did when she approached Barney about estate planning. She had decided to appoint her eldest son and daughter co-executors, without telling them first. Barney suggested that she invite all six kids to the planning meeting. When the topic came up, Shen's eldest daughter, who travels a lot, didn't want the responsibility. Says Shen: "But it opened the door to a discussion among all six, who unanimously agreed their oldest brother was the most capable for the job."