Facing Your Foes

Everyone loves a good sports rivalry. In the NFL, you have the Green Bay Packers versus the Chicago Bears. In the NBA, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics. And in the MLB, you can’t beat a matchup between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. At the college level, we love watching Duke face North Carolina and Ohio State run up against Michigan. In Saline County, nothing is bigger than Benton versus Bryant. 

The appeal of a good rivalry isn’t exclusive to the sports world, either. It seems the entire genre of Saturday morning cartoons was centered on humorous but bitter rivalries—Bugs Bunny versus Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny versus Yosemite Sam, Roadrunner versus Wile E. Coyote, Tom versus Jerry. In literature, my favorite rivalry was the battle of wits between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Others may prefer the raging rivalry between the Capulet family and the Montague family in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Speaking of family rivalries, unfortunately they aren’t limited to the realm of literature. In the real world, everyone has heard of the bloody rivalry between the Hatfields and the McCoys. In fact, the phrase “fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys” is commonly used to describe any group of parties engaged in bitter feuding.

As bad as it was, at least that rivalry was against two warring families and not an internal struggle involving members of the same family, a scenario that is perhaps less bloody but, in many ways, even more tragic. The public battles between Britney Spears, her father, Jamie Spears, and her sister, Jamie Lynn Spears come to mind, as do the issues between Angelina Jolie and her father, Jon Voight. Even the royals are not immune. Consider the rift that now exists between Prince Harry and the rest of the royal family, including his brother, Prince Willian, and his father, King Charles. As a royal tangent, you could include the falling out between Meghan Markle and her now-estranged father, Thomas, on the list.

I’m not saying any lawyer could have predicted and avoided these celebrity family problems, but for you, one of the goals of good estate planning is to try, best you can, to prevent family rivalries from tearing family members apart in stressful times. Estate planning attorneys are not miracle workers. We cannot eliminate all possibilities that family rivalries might spring up as life unfolds. But we can help create scenarios that minimize the chances of serious family trouble when times get tough.

In the typical pattern of life, the first big stressor that tests a family tends to be the disability (either gradually or suddenly) of a parent. What can an estate planning attorney do to help with this all-too-familiar development? First, it is imperative that thorough, well-designed power of attorney documents are in place before they are needed. The absence of power of attorney documents is the number one thing that will force a family into guardianship court. Bad power of attorney documents are a close second. What makes a power of attorney document bad? In this context, it would be putting the wrong family member in charge of the wrong thing or, sometimes worse, putting all family members in charge of everything because of an inability to make a decision for fear of hurting feelings.

Second, the disability of a parent brings up the difficult topic of long-term care. Having strong power of attorney documents can help with issues relating to long-term care. Having blunt and honest conversations before the need arises can help, too. To help alleviate the financial strain caused by long-term care, the best thing to do is work with an experienced elder law attorney who specializes in asset protection.

Another huge stressor that tests a family is the death of a parent. Nothing brings out the worst in people than the combination of emotional stress and money. What can an estate planning attorney do to help? He or she can guide you to think through as many contingencies as possible to put a solid, clear, easy-to-execute estate plan in place to guide the family after your death. Whether than plan involves simple death beneficiary designations, a last will and testament, or a trust, there are often many complicated issues to work through before you can be at peace knowing you did everything possible to minimize the chance of conflict.

At The Elrod Firm, we love nothing more than helping people work through these issues so they can face the future with peace of mind. No amount of planning can eliminate all chances of future family conflict, but a lack of planning can exponentially increase the chance of trouble.